Exploring Language Ecology in Ghana

Ari Sherris, Assistant Professor of Education at Texas A&M University- Kingsville
2015-2016 Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Ghana

I am a language ecologist. As a Fulbright U.S. Scholar, I lived among the Safaliba in a remote rural area of Ghana to document Safaliba literacy activism for one year. I also visited the University of Education, Winneba, my host institution, to deliver Fulbright seminars on topics that supplemented the expertise of their faculty in the School of Ghanaian Languages at their historic Ajumoko campus. I became deeply involved with both the research and lecturing sides of my Fulbright and was able to conduct research in both contexts. In what follows, I give you a sense of what it means to be a language ecologist during a time when a growing consensus of researchers believe many of our 7,000 living languages could become extinct by the turn of the next century. I will also share something of my love for Ghanaians and their multilingual landscape because, taken together, I was inspired to apply for a Fulbright.

Inspiration to seek a Fulbright
Ghanaians and their love for talk, dance, music, and peaceful co-existence are perhaps my deepest personal inspirations for seeking a Fulbright to Ghana. But I would be remiss were I not to add to that their rich multilingual and multicultural society. With 73 indigenous and 8 non-indigenous languages and very few books in the lion’s share of Ghanaian languages, the challenge for a language ecologist with a strong background in language and literacy education is keen. Moreover, the United Nations makes it clear that every child and all indigenous peoples have the right to learn to read and write in their mother tongues. Teaming up with mother-tongue Safaliba literacy activists in Ghana prior to my Fulbright opened a door because it gave me an opportunity to build relationships and explore shared values. Fulbright made it happen! I was on my way to one of the most important collaborations of my life. 

Living among the Safaliba
Safaliba (the name of a language and its people) is a small Ghanaian language spoken by an estimated 7,000-9,000 people.  Living among the Safaliba, I interviewed Safaliba, collected Safaliba folklore, and documented the development of an early childhood literacy project led by subsistence-farmer-teacher-activists keen on raising the status of their language and generating the conditions for mother tongue instruction. The kind of research I did is both documenting an under-documented language and ethnography. Most mornings I spent as a participant-observer in an early childhood classroom. Many afternoons I interviewed people about their language and culture. Much of the data collected will be archived and accessible to community members, linguists, and educationalists for the purposes of language preservation and revitalization. These archives are often the heart and soul of language ecology when it comes to smaller languages that are often outsiders in the world of public policy and government schools.

University of Education, Winneba Fulbright Seminars
In addition to my field research, I delivered seminars at the University of Education, Winneba. Faculty and graduate students attended my seminars on complex adaptive systems, translanguaging, conceptual metaphor theory, academic journal writing style, documenting early writing in indigenous languages, and task-based language instruction among other topics. Over the course of the year, a small group of five graduate students and three faculty members and I formed a Ghanaian conceptual metaphor research team and began to collect metaphors on love and death in seven Ghanaian languages, an under-researched area of Ghanaian semantics and pragmatics. Conceptual metaphors are among the frail parts of a language so finding ways to preserve them is important too. It is very much a frontier of language ecology because of their frailty. Moreover, it became increasingly evident that a more variationist theory of conceptual metaphors may be necessary to construct, which is a frontier positioning on conceptual metaphor theory.  

You may ask what this has to do with everyday life. Conceptual metaphors are meaning-making endeavors for everyone from a subsistence farmer to a nuclear physicist. When some of our metaphors disappear, so does meaning and so do pathways to make meaning. Preserving conceptual metaphors in archives has at least two practical purposes. First, it gives historians and linguists greater knowledge of how people make meaning and how that changes over time. Second, it gives language ecologists the raw materials to make instructional activities for reviving a language that is or might become critically endangered. It becomes a safety net for smaller languages, an insurance policy of sorts.

Spreading the word
Much of my work now is presenting at conferences and publishing the Safaliba literacy story in a variety of venues, as well as seeking funding to return to Ghana, roll up my sleeves, and support the preservation and revitalization endeavors of what I hope are a growing number of activists and their allies. In fact at this writing, I often have conversations with a friend who has been asked to help Ghana develop a multilingual language policy. That is a kind of language ecology too.  

On the deepest level, perhaps, language ecology is about multilingualism, particularly but not exclusively, of indigenous languages and cultures that are threatened by hegemonic material and economic forces, asymmetrical language policies that preference dominant languages. Therefore, setting policies that encourage grassroots literacies across smaller languages potentially supports the reversal of these forces.

Most people may assume that the world might be a better place with fewer languages and that we would communicate better with one another. Language ecologists don’t think so. For us, languages are part of a web of culturally and linguistically rich variations of human meaning making. Creating safe havens and communities where they all might flourish and grow, a sort of balanced ecosystem, is the sought after ideal through collaborations like this one with Safaliba activists and graduate students in Ghana who speak additional Ghanaian languages. Indeed, in the most biodiverse zones on our planet, such as Ghana, we often find the most flourishing linguistic diversity. Telling this story is important to maintain that sort of diversity. It is important for Ghana and it is important for all of us.