Learning Twi has been, by far, the best part of my experience in Ghana. Not only has it helped make my life much easier by being able to find my way around, buy goods, and make friends, its given me greater insights to the Ghanaian culture than simply living here would have.
Language reflects culture. Ghana is a communal culture, where the strength of the society stems from the interconnectedness of its people. It is important that when walking around town or in the workplace that you greet everyone the first time you see them. In Twi, maakye means good morning, maaha means good afternoon, and maajo means good evening, but you do not respond to maakye with maakye. Instead your response depends on the age and gender of the other person. The response reflects that the community/society is one big family.
Person Greeting / Response / Translation
Older man / Yaa ɛgya / Our father
Older woman / Yaa ɛna / Our mother
Peer / Yaa ɛnua / Our sibling
Young woman / Yaa amu /Our daughter
Young man / Yaa asɔn / Our son
If someone ever starts eating around you, they say “wa to” in Twi. This means you’re invited (to my meal). People mean it. Ghanaians will not hesitate to stick their fork into someone else’s meal and start enjoying it together. Another reflection of the Ghanaian philosophy that we’re all in this life together. Learning Twi has allowed me to experience the communal aspect of the culture which has been refreshing to me as I take a break from my individualistic American culture.
Ghanaians are very spiritual. This stems from their traditional African religion, which flourished long before the Europeans brought Christianity here. In fact there is even an Akan proverb: Obi nkyere abofrah Nyame “no one teaches a child about God”. When speaking Twi, thanks and praise to god is commonplace. A popular response to ɛtɛ sɛn? “How are you” is Onyame adom which simply means “by God’s grace (I’m fine)”. There is also no word for goodbye in Twi, but one can say wo ne nyame nkɔ meaning “Go with God”.
Twi is certainly different from English, but it’s not a hard language to learn.
For instance, there are no conjugations. There are few phonemes that are different from English. There are 22 letters in the alphabet which are the same as English, omitting c j q v x and z. The two additional letters are ɛ, like the e in set, and ɔ, like the o in pot.
There are some unique aspects of Twi. Twi is tonal, there are high and low tones. Many words are spelt the same but if the tones are different, they have a different meaning. For instance, if you say pàpá (low tone — high tone) that means dad. If you say pápá (high tone — high tone) that means good. Also Twi experiences what is called downdrift, the second of any two identical tones is a shade lower than the first. There is nasality, which is when some air escapes through the nose during the production of the sound by the mouth. Failure to use nasality can change the meaning of particular words. For instance sua (without nasality) means to be small, while sua (with nasality) means to learn. When using the tenses, you don’t alter the verb, but the direct object. If you say, me kɔ hwɛ, that means I’m looking. If you say, ma kɔ hwɛ, that means I’ve seen. Some words blend together, for instance, maakye (good morning) spelt out fully is me ma wo akye. All these technicalities may seem intimidating, but because of my strategy I’ve learned them implicitly.
I was fortunate during my time in Ghana to live in a Twi speaking community and that I was the only foreigner around. This forced me to learn it. People in Ghana struggle to understand my accent in English anyways, so it was almost easier to speak Twi. My strategy was simple, when I would hear a new word or phrase I would write it down phonetically on a note on my phone. Then I would ask someone for the English translation and write that next to my phonetic Twi. Over a years time and many subsequent trips, this list has grown to a couple thousand lines, but it happened one word or phrase at a time.
Kakra kakra akokɔ be nom nsu. “little by little a chicken drinks water” –Akan proverb
I’m now learning to write Twi. It’s a component of Twi I’ve never embarked upon, but has begun to improve my speaking. I’ve always been opposed to formally learning a language, especially the way its taught in American schools, where you learn the grammar etc. It’s boring. People who learn this way rarely feel confident speaking. American college students can impressively write a paper in Spanish, but can’t hold basic conversations with people. My motivation for learning Twi is to connect with people, so that’s why I’ve taken this approach.
I make a fool of myself daily, I try my best, but almost every conversation will inevitably end up in some misunderstanding of some sort. Sometimes that happens within the first few exchanges. Sometimes I survive a few minutes. But its extremely rewarding and I love how my Twi surprises people. I remember one time I just mumbled a few words of Twi while on a bus, and people were so shocked it quickly turned into an interview with different passengers asking me questions. Sometimes people ask me if I was born in Ghana. It’s a great ice breaker when conducting business too, it helps build trust between myself and the clients we work with. Instead of a foreigner trying to extract some profit from an EMR sale, my clients understand that I’m trying to build a company with Ghanaians for Ghana and simply beginning the conversation in Twi helps to convey my motivations.
I think one of the difficulties in learning Twi for people who only speak one language is that they are always trying to directly translate words and phrases. I feel fortunate that I learned German at a young age because it taught me that there are completely different ways to express the same ideas. For instance, if you tried to directly translate the following from Twi to English:
Twi/ Direct translation/ Meaning
Me gye m’ani / I collect my eyes / I’m happy
Me ma wo akye / I give you morning / Good morning
Me kra su / My soul is crying / I’m sad
Me da wo ase / I lie at your feet / Thank you
M’ani kum / My eyes have been killed / I’m sleepy
There are somethings that are difficult to translate or explain in English. Like the word wai. You put it at the end of a sentence to put emphasis on what you’ve said. Generally if someone says wai then you should reply ma tɛ which means “I’ve heard you”. This confirms that you’ve listened to the thing that someone insisted on putting an emphasis on. There is no such thing in English.
Twi has been under attack by Western influence for hundreds of years.
I read in the Ghanaian newspaper that Jamaica banned the import of slaves from the “Gold Coast”, aka present day Ghana, because those slaves spoke a common tongue (Twi) that was enabling them to organize and revolt. In fact, there is a community in the mountainous areas of Jamaica who are the decedents of escaped slaves that still speak Twi to this day.
I’m concerned with the current trend towards speaking English especially among the youth in Ghana.
Many kids are only speaking English in school, and consequently they don’t speak Twi in the house or with friends. I had been noticing this among my friend’s children, but then I also read an article in a Ghanaian newspaper which did an exposé on the fading mother tongue of Ghana. It’s a concern of many parents and linguists in the country.
It is so important for people to retain Twi, because not only would they lose a language but as emphasized above, they will lose apart of the culture with it. “Language transmits and conveys cultural values and gives the individuals a sense of identity” said Dr Banning Peprah, a Ghanaian Language specialist at the University of Ghana Department of Linguistics.
It is possible for a country to have a de facto spoken language and a business language. I saw this in Switzerland. When I was working at Novartis, all work was done in English, but Swiss german is the most commonly spoken language in social settings. They actually don’t even write Swiss German, it is simply a spoken language. While English is most important for business in Ghana, I hope Twi persists as the common tongue for social communication.
Despite current trends, there are some things that make me hopeful that Twi will continue to persist. The first being that it has been under threat of extinction for so many years. Cultural arts like music, film, etc are often in Twi. There is soccer commentary in Twi. The African Cup of Nations, Africa’s bi-annual football tournament, is currently going on. What’s funny is that many people watch the game on TV which has an English commentary, but then put the TV on mute and play the Twi commentary on their radio. They prefer the Twi commentary because as one friend put it “They make you laugh”.
I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to learn this language. It’s drastically enhanced my experience in Ghana and has given me new ways of articulating emotions, expressing spirituality, and formulating ideas. I hope to see the language continue to persist despite western influence to wash it out with English.