Boss: “Okay, so who wants to join the monkey feeding committee?”
Abu, whispering to me and Salifu: “I want to join the hongin committee.”
Me: “The what?”
Salifu: “You know, hongin. Hongin out.”
He writes: “hanging”
Me: “Oh! Americans say hAAAAAAngeen.”
Salifu and Abu vainly try to suppress their snickers, and the boss glares at us.
Ghana’s official language is English, and most people here speak it well. As in other English-speaking countries, however, the English spoken in Ghana doesn’t sound the same as what you hear in America. Newly-arrived Americans often struggle to understand, and be understood by, Ghanaians. To aid understanding, ex-pats often adjust the way they speak, trying to adopt Ghanaian vocabulary and accent.
Are ex-pat attempts to speak “Ghanaian English” offensive? It can be nearly impossible to get around without it. As one of my ex-pat friends said, “You do what you have to do to be understood.” On the other hand, trying to emulate another accent almost always has awkward results. I cringe at the thought of trying to copy a British, Australian, or Southern accent, and would be truly annoyed if someone insisted in speaking to me Sarah Palin-style. Trying to change your accent can imply that the person you are speaking to is not sophisticated enough to understand other English accents. Several of my friends have been criticized for using Ghanaian accents in the workplace, on the grounds that it is condescending.
I’ve had experiences in both directions. I’ve discovered that I will never be able to access money unless I direct taxis to the “bonk”, rather than the “baaaank”. But I’ve also been mortified when making a call to a Ghanaian, introducing myself with a slight Ghanaian accent, only to have the person respond in perfect BBC British English.
I conducted an informal survey of the Ghanaians I work with, to see what they thought about ex-pats adopting Ghanaian accents and words. Here’s a sample of the responses:
“You should try to make your words more clear for us.“
“It’s exciting and not offensive.”
“Sometimes, when you try to pronounce it like we do, it sounds mocking.”
“People expect you to try to change your accent. It’s helpful. “
“For those who are well-educated, they may feel like you are talking down to them.”
“When expats try to speak pidgin, it’s funny.”
“You should start normal, then if they don’t understand, then you can say it with the accent.”
“When you go out in the community, it marks you as someone who has been here a while.”
“When she speaks [without the accent], the guy is always turning to me and asking, ‘what did she say?’”
“You don’t use ‘aba!’ right.”
The Ghanaians I spoke to, all in our Northern office, had a range of education levels and experience abroad. They generally agreed that it’s not offensive when ex-pats try to speak in a Ghanaian accent. However, a couple of them noted that when a person does it in a mocking way, or uses a very severe accent with a highly educated person, it can be offensive.
All of them thought that it was fine for ex-pats to adopt Ghanaian vocabulary, such as “small small”, “somehow”, or “this thing”. In fact, most said they don’t notice it as being different from our normal vocabulary. Learning local languages or even pidgin was universally lauded, although I was advised not to use pidgin in partner meetings.
My conclusion, based on these responses and my own experiences, is that the idea that trying to copy a Ghanaian accent is offensive is overblown, at least here in the North. An honest effort to adapt your speech to make yourself better understood is often helpful, and at worst, will make you sound a little strange. One caveat might be using a particularly dramatic accent in a work setting, as some may see the implication that they can’t understand an American accent as an implication that they are not educated.
Some tips for Americans speaking to Ghanaians in work settings:
1. Start by telling the people you are talking to that they should let you know if you are speaking too quickly, or if there is anything they don’t understand.
2. Speak slowly.
3. Enunciate your words.
4. Don’t try to copy exactly how Ghanaians say every word, just those necessary in order for them to understand. For example, you don’t need to say “wah-tah” to ask for water. Go ahead and say “waa-terrr “, in all it's nasal glory.
5. Pay attention to how you talk to people. It’s easy to get in the habit of talking one way to taxi drivers, and carry that into other conversations, where it is less appropriate. Talking in a Ghanaian accent won’t actually help that Australian guy understand you any better.