One word that could describe Africa as a whole continent is diversity. Africa is made up of 54 different countries, each with its own cultures, traditions, landscapes and of course, languages. According to the department of African and African American studies of Harvard University, there are an estimated 1000 to 2000 languages spread across the continent.
English is Ghana’s official foreign language because of its history of colonization, however, Ghanaian languages are rich and varied, as there are 8 ethnic and more than seventy tribal groups, each with its own distinct language.
This post will give you an insight into the different languages and ethnic groups of Ghana, as well as resources and available places for expats in Accra to learn the local languages and help you integrate into society and be able to communicate with the locals.
A brief introduction into African languages
As per what the department of African and African American studies of Harvard University states, in total, there are at least 75 languages in Africa which have more than one million speakers. The rest are spoken by populations ranging from a few hundred to several hundred thousand speakers.
Most of the languages are primarily oral with little available in written form.
There are four main families:
- Niger-Congo: inhabit Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Africa. The most widely spoken languages of Africa, Swahili (200 million), Yoruba (45 million), Igbo (30 million), and Fula (35 million).
- Nilo-Saharan: found mainly in the Northern regions of Africa, including: northern Nigeria (Hausa), southern Niger, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and in the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, etc.
- Afroasiatic: these occupy Eastern Africa and the North Eastern region of Africa, namely: Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Chad, the Sudan, etc.
- Khoisan: believed to be the oldest of the four language families, it is the smallest of the four and is found mainly in Southern Africa.
Ghanaian languages belong to the Niger-Congo family.
An overview of Ghanaian languages
Languages in Ghana originate from various ethnic groups that left their original homes in the past to settle in Ghana. Here is a list of the languages spoken:
The most common and widely spoken local language in Ghana, so knowing a few Akan words always come in handy. This language comprises Fante, Asante, Twi, and Akuapem Twi. The Akan language is part of the Kwa-branch that is believed to have originated from the Niger-Congo family.
It is spoken by over 40% of Ghanaian and in regions in the Ivory Coast. Akan speakers are found in the Ashanti Region mainly (native speakers) and almost all across the country.
The Ewe language is part of the Gbe dialect, which is believed to have originated from the Volta-Niger area. Mainly spoken in the Volta Region, mutually intelligible branches are the Tongu (language in Sogakope, Adidome, and areas near Ada). People in Ho, Hohoe and Kpando speak Vedome and in Akatsi they speak Avenor.
Anlo, for example, is the most widely spoken form of Ewe and spoken by people in southern Volta. Interestingly, apart from being the second most common language in Ghana, it is spoken also in Togo and Benin.
The Ewe dialects vary enormously. Groups of villages that are two or three kilometres apart use distinct varieties, however people can still understand each other and can identify the peculiarities of the different areas.
The Dagombas are the second largest etchnic group in Ghana, the largest in the Northern Region. This ethnic group (and the Mole-Dagbani ethnic group) speak Dagabani. Because of trading activities, it also spread to Burkina-Faso where it is also spoken.
The Ga language is spoken by the Ga tribes, who are native to the south-eastern region of Ghana, in the capital city of Accra and the coastal strip stretching east from the city and inland for several miles. This is one of the languages you will more likely hear once you land in Accra!
This is Ga’s sister language, part of the Ga-Dangme languages in the Greater Accra region.
Spoken by the Nzema ethnic group, it is part of the Bia dialect. Although it seems similar to Akan, it has more differences than similarities.
Gonja is part of the Guang and Tano dialect of languages in Africa, spoken in the Northern Region of Ghana.
Part of the Gur branch of languages in Africa, it is also spoken in the Upper East region and Burkina Faso.
We cannot have a list of languages in Ghana without speaking about Pidgin English (also known as broken English). Pidgin is a type of English spoken in Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Sierra Leone. It is not part of any ethnic group or local dialect, but rather a combination of English language mixed with some words from common local languages.
This type of English is mostly spoken by the youth, used in day-to-day, friendly conversations. At the beginning it may be as if you are hearing “Chinese” but with time you will surely grasp a few words. In the meantime you can start practicing by having a look at some of the most used slang words that will make you feel more Ghanaian!
Why is it important to preserve local Ghanaian languages?
If we put emphasis on bigger Ghanaian cities such as Accra for example, the influences from outside as well as modernisation, is affecting the languages Ghanaians use to communicate in.
Even if we look back in time, the Ghanaian education system has never really imposed the use and learning of the local Ghanain dialects, rather pushing more of the English language. Kids would get punished in school for speaking a local language and not English.
The same case can be reflected within the Ghanaian arts industry or communication sector for example (movies, radio, etc). There are not too many Ghanaian movies pushing to produce movies only in the local languages, but rather you will see actors using British or American accents. Same applies to radio stations for example, more and more stations will communicate in English rather than in a local language.
Preserving the local languages is a big part of a country’s identity. It is a medium through which the diverts and richness of Ghana can be showcased. It is something unique to Ghana’s culture. Imagine if every part of the world communicated in one sole language, produced music, movies, etc ONLY in English? It would be kind of boring and monotonous.
Where to learn some of the local Ghanaian languages?
The best way to learn a language is always by communicating. So the first (and easiest and cheapest) to start learning some of the local Ghanaian languages is to mingle with the locals! Do not be shy or afraid to get closer to a local person you may feel more comfortable with (a co-worker, a new friend you may meet at a social event, etc) and ask them to teach you some of their local language.
Another option is to find a private tutor. Unless you know someone that can recommend someone they know, the easiest way is to get on the expat groups on Facebook such as Accra Expats or Ghana Intl expats, and ask there directly. These groups are very active and they will surely recommend someone.
The Language Cafe Accra is a meet up platform offering in-person, group language lessons. It happens once a week, depending on which language you choose, the day of the week varies. Twi for example, happens on Fridays. It is also a great way to meet new people and a great way to introduce you into Accras social scene! The Alliance Francais offer Twi classes.
Of course Youtube is always there! Nowadays you can find many YouTube channels that offer crash courses in basic Twi.
The diversity of local languages in Ghana definitely makes it hard to learn a language, especially to differentiate one another! Our advice is to stick to one language at a time or simply learn a few words and phrases in those languages you know that will be most useful for you. And practice with those around you; the Uber driver, your local fruit vendor, your co-workers, or anyone else you can think of!