Derek Owusu talks about what it means not to speak the language of your ancestors

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

I wonder what kind of person I would be if I could speak Twi. How my thoughts would run, how I would interact with my surroundings. For a long time, I underestimated the impact language had on shaping who I am. I used to think of it just as a way of simple communication between groups, not as something containing the history, culture, self-perception and mythology of a people.

My mother came to the United Kingdom at the age of 18. She had no plans to move back to Ghana, her past in West Africa being darkened by the military rule of Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings and the poverty of her small town, Jamasi. She was thinking, I’m sure, that the UK was a gateway to a new and better life. Who can blame her? Dreams had been sold all over the continent after the nightmare of colonialism so it’s no surprise that she sleepwalked into London, had me, and only then realised, when she experienced racism

Mate Masie
Mate Masie: Symbol of wisdom, knowledge and prudence  Jean MacDonald – Well-Tempered Web Design 

and couldn’t find a place to live that was accepting of single mothers, that Abrokyire (abroad) wasn’t all that people said it was.Still, the way my mother sees it, she suffered so I don’t have to. England was still better than Ghana. She definitely had this in mind when she named me. And I suspect it’s also one of the reasons why she didn’t teach me Twi, her mother tongue. At the time, a connection with her homeland would have been the last thing on her mind, the weight of Rawling’s regime still heavy on her back. So of course creating a new identity was appealing, especially with a newborn who she probably perceived as not having one yet. I was to become British, which to me is not an identity but a nationality only. It’s cold and lacks the warmth of familiarity, depth and general acceptance. It can be taken away with enough racist backing and paperwork. Who I am, I feel, should go beyond place of birth and the amalgamation of toned-down Ghanaian behaviours and London idiosyncrasies.

So I wasn’t taught Twi. I only managed to pick up bits and pieces by listening closely to conversations being had around me. But for as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve been asked by uncles, aunties, or random older people who find out I’m Ghanaian, whether I can speak Twi or not, my response has always been, “I can understand it but I can’t speak it”. They respond with an “ooh okay” and then give me that meek Ghanaian smile and end the conversation. In that moment it’s hard not to feel only half Ghanaian, instead of the full Ghanaian I’d like to see myself as. A bond could have been developed between us but spoken English would not have been a sufficient agent. It’s easy to say that the outsider feeling is self-imposed but try interrupting two Ghanaians speaking Twi, flowing together, with English, and the palpable rupturing of the conversation says it all.

Whenever I’ve tried to speak Twi in the past, the person I’m speaking to would correct me, appreciate it, but only after they had finished laughing. It’s not their job to teach, but it’s a shame that some discourage.

I’m starting to feel that even if I learn my history and immerse myself in Ghana’s culture, because I can’t speak one of its main languages, I’ll never be able to fully understand a way of life and thought that is my inheritance. Because elements of cultures are codes that almost seem meaningless if you don’t have the key.

It’s strange to think of language and cultural barriers existing in the home you grew up

Akoma Ntoso
AKOMA NTOSO
“linked hearts”
symbol of understanding and agreement – Jean MacDonald – Well-Tempered Web Design 

in. These are ideas you apply to people who are not from the same place as you are. But I often struggle to “see” what my mum is trying to say or why she behaves a certain way. From very young, I struggled to understand the scolding I’d receive for using my left hand (I wiped with my right but still took a beating) and today I’m saddened by my mother’s laid back and dismissive attitude towards mental health. In our culture, she says, “these things are not there”. It’s hard to connect with her on a level I know exists but I struggle to define—there’s probably a word for it in Twi—; I see it when she speaks to my dad, aunts, and uncles, something existing in the language and perspective that I cannot grasp.

It’s common for people to say that you can’t translate a joke without the humour disappearing, but I also think it’s impossible to translate a word that describes a feeling or way of thinking without the word becoming meaningless to the person you’re trying to communicate with. And so along with the word, the behaviour isn’t understandable either.

Often, people change depending on the language they’re speaking. My dad, confident and fluent in both, can go from reserved and relaxed while speaking Twi to boisterous and excited when speaking Ga. It’s hard to not wonder about the difference in thought processes of a person who can think in multiple languages. The language you think in will have huge effects on your self-perception and so will definitely impact your personality. If I managed to master Twi at this stage of life and made the conscious effort to form my thoughts with it, within a few years, wouldn’t I begin to be someone else? Wouldn’t I be more Ghanaian, now being able to “flow” and connect with speakers better; reference feelings I may have had but couldn’t before articulate, live by the myths that are woven into the language? Ghana being my country of origin has usually been enough for me to call myself Ghanaian. But it’s hard not to feel like I’m deceiving myself when I go to Ghana and realise there is more to being Ghanaian than just acknowledging my past and declaring myself “home”.

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derek.jpgDerek Owusu is a writer, mentor and host on literature podcast, Mostly Lit. He discovered literature at the age of 23 while studying exercise science at university and soon after dedicated his life to reading and writing.

Main image: John McCann/Mail & Guardian.


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9 thoughts on “Mother tongue: the lost inheritance of diaspora

  1. Bless you for having the gift of communicating what so many of us are thinking. I am a second-generation Chinese American but I can relate to everything you are saying. Thank you for sharing your thoughts so eloquently!

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  2. Thank you so much for articulating what many of us who don’t speak our parents’ languages are experiencing.

    In my family’s case it’s particularly complicated: My father was a member of the minority of Turks in Bulgaria. In theory, his native language was an old form of Turkish more closely related to the language spoken during the Ottoman times than modern Turkish. However, given that my das was born long before Bulgaria’s independence, he has always considered his native language to be Bulgarian. Turkish was taught in schools to children of the ethnic minority, but it started to feel “foreign” and even at home Bulgarian was spoken.

    When my dad left Bulgaria for Germany for political reasons and met my German mother they only communicated in German, and my father didn’t teach me or my siblings either Bulgarian or his “native” language. He had become extremely disappointed with everything Bulgarian after experiencing discrimination. Like your mother, he was under the impression that his children were fully German because we were born and raised there and even had a German mother. As anyone with a similar background knows, though, we are never fully accepted. A different name and a parent with an accent is enough to show that we are different.

    We were always upset that we didn’t get to learn Bulgarian or Turkish, and while I, as the oldest, understand some, it’s painful not be able to communicate fully with cousins and extended family that are now residents of Turkey, Bulgaria, and other countries. A common language would be much needed to be able to have the same kind of family bonds that would be had if we lived at “home.”

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  3. Your article is deep. Bless you for that. My parents are also from Ghana. I was born and raised in Germany. I was thaught Twi and forbidden to ever respond in German to them as a child but allowed to speak it with my siblings. As a child I did not really like or appreciated it but now as a grown person I am grateful. However I still get reminded by some aunties, uncles and my Ghanaian people, that my Twi is just about “okay”. Apparently there is a “German” touch to it. Lol. So yeah. Life goes on. Give it a try. Education has no end or expiring date.

    Here is a nice song that expresses the same feeling you have: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aHVnAYPlEo

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  4. Derek,

    My parents are also from Ghana, and they also decided not to teach me Twi. Almost all of their friends in the States made the same decision, and once I was old enough to articulate my anger about the situation, we have fought about it many times. My mother and her friends often tell me, Oh you can understand it. Just go to Ghana for a year and you’ll be able to speak it! As if going to Ghana for a year is feasible when you have no savings and your job is here. It’s very frustrating, and I’m so glad you were able to articulate the pain that I feel, the loss that I feel for not having their language as a part of my life. I did a genetic test and discovered that my family has been in Ghana in an almost unbroken line since the beginning of time. The fact that I don’t know the language that every single one of my ancestors spoke is ridiculous, and I really don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to fix it.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This really strikes a chord. I’m French-Malian, though only grew up using French, my ‘mother-tongue’ and always felt my siblings and I were missing a huge part of our identity by not being able to speak our ‘father-tongue.’ I am now losing my French because I communicate mainly in English. I’m about to give birth and while I want to speak French to my child rather than English, I also worry about not being able to fully share my Malian heritage with my child. As you say, language opens doors to parts of yourself that are not accessible in another language, and I want to be able to give my child the fullness of experience which I didn’t have access to.

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  6. Yes, I feel I am almost a different person when I speak my mother-tongue, Hungarian. My son has never forgiven me for not teaching/raising him in that language. And ‘home’ is Budapest, though we emigrated in 1948, my 11th year of life.

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