A Kente of Many Colours: Multilingualism and the Complex Ecology of Language Shift in Ghana

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Sociolinguistic Studies (33): 357-379


Language shift, a process which may lead speakers to use their language in fewer domains with respect to other languages or even lose proficiency in their language altogether in favour of other languages, is a prominent concept in linguistics. But the concept has been mainly studied from Western perspectives (e.g. Fishman 1964, 1991, Veltman 1983 and Bastardas-Boada 2007). This paper discusses language shift from the perspectives of Ghana, a highly multilingual developing nation in West Africa. We introduce the concept of ecology of language shift, and argue that any theory of language shift must rigorously take into consideration the complexity of the ecology in which language shift occurs. Multilingual language shift processes, which involve situations in which different types of language shift take place concurrently or sequentially in a country, are thus very different from simple language shift situations in less multilingual set-ups. The paper provides a relatively detailed empirical study of language shift based on a questionnaire survey before outlining some language maintenance activities, such as the pervasive use of indigenous Ghanaian languages in FM radio broadcast, that are being pursued to contain language shift in Ghana. Some of these language maintenance activities may also be useful for containing language shift in other African countries.



Multilingualism, language shift, language maintenance, mass media, education system, Ghana