Attitudes, Ambitions, and the Language of Education:
Debates on the Language of Instruction in the Ghanaian Education System
Melinda Sellers © 2007
“People’s views of a person are shaped by the way they perceive him to speak” – Kofi K. Saah, 367
“A man’s worth is no greater than his ambitions” – Marcus Aurelius
It has often been stated that the language one chooses to speak and one’s language proficiency are standards against which one’s intelligence, literacy and cultural pride and heritage are measured (Saah 367, Mfum-Mensah 83, Obeng 72, Dei 421). Indeed, this premise informs the opinions expressed in the debate over what language, or language variety should be used as the medium of instruction in Ghanaian schools. By clarifying recent educational policies and practices, synthesizing the many arguments and opinions, and analyzing their motivations, one can hopefully gain insight into, and appreciation for the complexity of the debate, and for Ghana’s linguistic situation as a whole.
To truly understand the many opinions and attitudes expressed in this debate, supplementary information on Ghana’s language ecology and functions, educational history, systems, policies and practices, is required. This necessary information will help clarify the subsequent synthesis of the attitudes and opinions regarding the language of instruction, and the motivations behind these attitudes and arguments.
The Language Ecology of Ghana
The actual number of indigenous languages spoken in Ghana is uncertain. In The English Language in West Africa, Spencer and Boadi both offer different estimates, the former suggesting that there are thirty languages, while the latter claims that there are over forty (Spencer 2, Boadi 49). Melchers claims that there are fourty-two different languages, Bamgbose notes that there are fifty-seven, while Grimes claims that there are sixty (Melchers 146, Bamgbose and Grimes qtd. in Obeng 63). The largest estimate, proffered by the Ethnologue: Languages of the World, is that there are seventy-nine different indigenous languages in Ghana. This wide range of possible indigenous languages is caused by the difficulty of distinguishing between a dialect and a language, and also by the tendency to identify “particular languages with particular communities … where communities with different languages but similar culture are termed speakers of the same language” (Obeng 63-4). For example, Asante-Twi and Fante are dialects of Akan, and yet they are sometimes regarded as separate languages within the same source (Dseagu 59, Obeng 64).
This lack of consensus is also apparent with regards to Ghana’s official language(s). According to McArthur, Trudgill and Hannah, the Ethnologue and, perhaps less credibly, the entry for “Ghana” on the Wikipedia, the official language of Ghana is English (McArthur 271, Trudgill 123). Others, such as Dseagu, claim that there are seven official languages in Ghana, namely English, “Hausa, Dagbani, Ewe, Twi, Ga and Fante” (59). However, such claims conflict with Obeng’s statement that English is indeed the “only official language at the national level”, but that it is joined by Akan and Hausa as a lingua franca (64-5). There appears to be some confusion over lingua francas versus recognized official languages, especially since the numbers are further complicated by the difficulty in distinguishing between dialects and languages. It is relatively safe to conclude that there are between an estimated thirty and seventy-nine indigenous languages in Ghana, and, the distinction between lingua francas and official languages aside, that English is acknowledged by all sources to be an official language of the country. However, determining the correct number of official or indigenous languages is not essential, but recognizing the variable nature of languages in terms of their number and use is vital, as it is in this linguistic environment that debates upon the medium of instruction in the Ghanaian education system occur.
The Functions of Different Languages and Language Varieties
Indigenous languages tend to function as a means of communication within one’s region, and between people of the same ethnic or linguistic group. They are used at home, and in informal situations (Saah 371). In addition to the many indigenous languages, there are two varieties of English, standard English and West African Pidgin English (McArthur 271). Indeed, it is important to note that since English (of either the standard or Pidgin varieties) is usually spoken as a second, third or even fourth language, it “enjoys the unique status of being nobody’s language”, thus making it ‘neutral’ and unlikely to exacerbate any existing tensions between different ethnic groups (Dseagu 59, McArthur 271, Hickey 528, Trudgill 124, Schmied 31).
While West African Pidgin English also functions as a language of literature and publishing, its primary function is as a language of communication, one with a broader reach than indigenous languages (Huber 158, Melchers 146, McArthur 271). Indeed, Pidgin serves the “immediate needs of the majority” as a language of unity and wider communication between people of different ethnic and linguistic groups, in part because of its perceived neutrality (McArthur 271, Boadi 51). Consequently, Pidgin has developed an economic function: it is the language used to communicate with one’s superior in the workplace, and at venues such as the local market (Boadi 51, Dseagu 64, Saah 372, Goke-Pariola 151-2). Finally, Pidgin also functions as the language of a particular profession, specifically of the army and the police force (Huber 149, 152-3).
In contrast, standard English has more functions than either Pidgin English or the various indigenous languages. Similarly to Pidgin and indigenous languages, standard English functions as a language of neutrality and wider communication, but on the level of the national media (Hickey 528, Mfum-Mensah 81). It is also used in literature, publishing and for administrative purposes, such as in the civil service (McArthur 266, Melchers 150, Mfum-Mensah 80-2, Schmied 24). In addition, standard English is the language variety used in politics and diplomacy (Hickey 528, Mfum-Mensah 82, Goke-Pariola 67), as well as for science, technology and general modernization (Schmied 18, Ammon 399-400). However, whenever standard English shares functions with one or both of Pidgin or indigenous languages, the standard variety functions on a comparatively elite level. For example, with the economic function Pidgin is used in the market while standard English is used in the realm of international trade (Dseagu 60, Saah 371). In addition, there are functions that are standard English only, such as diplomacy or, to a large extent, politics. Consequently, standard English is viewed as a tool for upward social mobility, and is associated with an elite segment of society (McArthur 271, Phillipson 286; Melchers 151, 3, Mfum-Mensah 80-3, Saah 370). However, the one function that standard English and indigenous languages share is as the language of instruction in education, and the extent to which each language should function is of course a matter of debate (Hickey 528, Melchers 150, Mfum-Mensah 81, Adegbija 82-3, Dei 421-2).
A Brief History of Colonial Education
The first sources of education were supplied by “voluntary agents”, namely by missionaries, whose language policies were often more consistent than those of colonial administrators (Schmied 16). Missions’ goals were of course conversion, and to “train local people to serve as church and church-school leaders (Graham qtd. in Mfum-Mensah 75). The Basel and the Wesleyan missions initially used English as the medium of instruction, but in the latter part of the nineteenth century, these two missions implemented different language policies: both eventually began to use the vernacular as the medium of instruction, not as a means to promote Ghanaian culture or language, but as a more effective method of instruction and, more importantly, of conversion (Foster and Graham qtd. in Mfum-Mensah 75). Others, such as the Methodist mission, not only used English almost exclusively as the language of instruction, but scoffed at the use of the vernacular by the Basel mission in particular (Obeng 72). Some like Skutnabb-Kangas bemoan the missions’ haphazard language policies, but it is important to note that these language policies re the language of instruction act as an early precedent for the current situation in Ghana (319). In the 1920s the first schools based on the British model were opened in Ghana, and the main language of instruction was English (Dseagu 61). As a result, any existing missionary schools transformed, adhering to the new British model, an adaptation which included changing the language of instruction back to English (Dseagu 61, Mfum-Mensah 75). Therefore, the Ghanaian education system has a history of using both indigenous languages and English as the mediums of instruction, with a tendency to move between the two.
The Structure of the Education System
The Ghanaian education system is divided into three levels, known as the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. According to the Republic of Ghana’s website, students begin their primary level education at age six, and the completion of primary takes a total of six years. There are a total of six years of secondary education, with three years for Junior secondary, and three years of Senior secondary. At the end of the Junior secondary program, students sit the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) – entrance to Senior secondary depends upon passing the BECE (Republic of Ghana website). To be admitted to tertiary level education, which includes universities, and vocational/technical colleges, students must sit a second set of examinations. (Republic of Ghana website, Obeng 72-3) This system was newly implemented in 1987, but according to Obeng it does not differ greatly from the previous system – there are some minor differences in the number of years ascribed to each level of education (73-4). The two most important features to observe about the education system are the two which have not changed with any systemic reforms, namely the six years devoted to primary education, and the numerous entrance examinations.
However, there are other divisions in the education system beyond primary, secondary and tertiary, namely the public versus private split (Obeng 73, Boadi 57). Public schools are government run and funded, while private or preparatory schools are expensive, limited admittance institutions. Beyond these divisions between public and private, and between primary, secondary and tertiary levels is an informal, yet extremely important distinction between urban and rural schools. The major feature which distinguishes these schools, beyond geography, is the quality of the education provided (Boadi 57, Mfum-Mensah 83).
The Ministry of Education is constructed with a top-down power flow, wherein decisions are made by an executive and then decisions are implemented by the districts and the school boards (Mfum-Mensah 79). Education is not the jurisdiction of the regions but of the national government (Republic of Ghana website). After 1966, the trend in educational policies was to have an indigenous language as the medium of instruction for the first few years of a child’s education (Mfum-Mensah 76). From1987 to 2003, the policy was that children would be taught in the indigenous language prevalent in their area for the first three years of primary, and that during that time, English had to be taught as a subject (Mfum-Mensah 76). In addition, the legislation stated that from “Primary four onwards, English replaces the Ghanaian language as [the] medium of instruction, and the Ghanaian language becomes another subject on the timetable” (Mfum-Mensah 76). Therefore, English began as a medium of instruction as of primary four and it continued from that point on to be the language of instruction in the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education.
However, as is often the case, the policy and practices differ upon application. It appears that in some cases the official policy was interpreted as “English should be introduced as a medium of instruction […] as early as possible” (Boadi 57). Since urban schools tend to have highly multiethnic and multi-linguistic groups, choosing just one indigenous language as the medium of instruction proved to be a difficult task (Boadi 57). According to Huber, Pidgin “is a predominantly urban phenomenon”, so logically most children who live in an urban context have been exposed to Pidgin English (Huber 139). Consequently, this mass familiarity with a variety of the ‘neutral’ English language would support its use as a medium of instruction (Dseagu 59). It is unsurprising to note, therefore, that instruction in English began earlier in urban schools regardless of the legislation (Boadi 57, Mfum-Mensah 81-3, Huber 137, 139). In contrast, rural schools tend to be located in ethnically and linguistically homogenous areas, where it was easy to use the majority’s local language instead of depending upon a common familiarity with Pidgin (Boadi 57). As a result, English was not introduced before primary four, as it was not necessary to do so. Indeed, in some cases English was not introduced at all until the secondary level, usually for two reasons: the teachers were neither qualified nor able to teach in English, and the students were not proficient enough to benefit from English as the language of instruction (Boadi 57, Obeng 73).
The practice again differs from the policy when one regards the differences between the education provided by public and private institutions. In “expensive, prestigious private schools” English is given top priority, to the extent that in some extreme situations, students who “spoke the Ghanaian languages were punished” (Saah 371, Obeng 73). Indeed, many private schools emphasize “English language instruction from the preschool level”, which is in fact what encourages parents to enroll their children in private schools – English is not only used early, but at a high level as well (Mfum-Mensah 84, Saah 371, Boadi 57).
Current Policy Changes
According to scholars like Adegbija, most education systems in West Africa have a very similar policy to the one outlined above (87, 89). However, in 2003, with much heated debate, Ghana changed their policy: Indigenous languages are no longer used as the primary medium of instruction during primary education (Mfum-Mensah 76-7). According to Mfum-Mensah, the purpose of this new initiative is to highlight the use of English at all levels of schooling, leading to “Education mainly in English” (76, Republic of Ghana website). While the new legislation is not a total ban on indigenous languages as the mediums of instruction, it is definitely a move to minimize them. It is important to note that at this point in time, scholarly research has yet to take this change in policy into account. Indeed, the consequences of this change in educational policy would be an interesting area for future study. Despite the lack of current literature, it is quite apparent that this change in policy is central to the debate on the language of instruction, and consequently an analysis of the opinions and attitudes presented in this debate would be enlightening.
Opinions and Attitudes
Before addressing the many opinions presented in the debate on English as the medium of instruction, it is important to note that in general, Ghanaians tend to pride themselves on their high level of standard English (McArthur 277). In addition, there are two standard assumptions to be aware of when considering opinions on the English language: Firstly, English is considered to be “synonymous with education in general”, and secondly, “Ghanaian society … equates one’s level of proficiency in the English language with level of intelligence” (Schmied 14, Mfum-Mensah 83, Saah 368). It is also apparent that whether you look at a source from 1975, or newspaper articles from 2005, this favorable attitude towards standard English in general has not changed (Adegbija 83, Schmied 19). Consequently, while there are some arguments against the use of English in education, there is also a great deal of pro-English sentiment, which may help explain what motivated the change in educational policy in 2003.
What follows is a synthesis of the various opinions and attitudes presented in the debate on the language of instruction in Ghanaian schools. First shall be the favorable opinions and their motivations, followed by the unfavorable opinions and their motivations, and ending in who espouses what point of view.
The Language of Pragmatism
The largest reason explaining why opinions towards English remain favorable is basic pragmatism. If students wish to succeed academically, they must speak and be proficient in English. This coincides with the notion that the quality of a person’s English is believed to be indicative of their intelligence (Saah 368, Schmied 14, Mfum-Mensah 83). This is especially apparent for when students sit the Basic Education Certificate Examinations (BECE), as it determines the future of their academic career, and subsequently their future employment. Indeed, Mfum-Mensah notes that this examination “measures students’ level of academic success and their potential for … post-secondary level … education by their success in [the] English language” (83). (The italics are mine). In his case study of seven rural Ghanaian communities, Mfum-Mensah had students, parents, teachers and school administrators note that academic success depended upon early instruction in English – and that the earlier it was introduced, the better (82-4 , Boadi 57). Since the examinations are in English, a lack of understanding of the language spells failure and the obstruction of all personal ambitions and goals.
The opportunity for future advancement and the acquisition of power are also important pragmatic reasons for why opinions regarding English as the medium of instruction remain favorable. English is a tool for advancement and power, one that enables people who are either poor, from rural areas, or both, to leave their communities for better prospects (Mfum-Mensah 80-4). This of course ties in with the fact that English is the language of Ghana’s social elite, and that learning English allows for upward social mobility (McArthur 271, Phillipson 286, Melchers 151, 3, Goke-Pariola 97-8, Mfum-Mensah 80-4). This is part of the rationale for why private schools are so lucrative and so focused on English - parents want their children to advance as far as possible up the social ladder (Mfum-Mensah 84, Saah 371). Also tied in with this idea of advancement is the idea of economic gain. Not only does going to the bank, or going to the market require some knowledge of English, but learning and being proficient in English enables someone to obtain lucrative employment, such as government jobs (Schmied 24, King 451-2, Mfum-Mensah 80-4, Saah 369-71, Adegbija 83).
English is also the language of modernization. The idea that English is the language that will help modernize Ghana was quite popular upon the country’s independence in 1957, but it is still apparent with regards to the fields of science and technology, as well as academia (Schmied 18, Dseagu 60, Boadi 65). One suspects that the link between English and modernization has only been strengthened by the advent of tools such as the internet, and the prevalence of electronic mass media in English.
In addition, there appears to be a firm link between knowledge of the English language and the idea of inclusion. In his study, the children and parents Mfum-Mensah interviewed noted that without English they were “useless in our Ghanaian society”, unheard and excluded from the urban community, and that they did “not exist in …society. They do not know what it going on, [and] have no say in anything” (81-2). This sentiment is echoed by Adegbija, who notes that the use of English means that many “indigenous people are, in terms of voice, disenfranchised …[and unable to] effectively participate in crucial national issues” (92). Thus English, one’s identity, and the ability to communicate with others, and one’s inclusion as a member of society, are all linked. With this attitude in mind, it is not surprising that many of the interviewees for Mfum-Mensah’s study were very upset by the government’s policy of promoting instruction in an indigenous language until primary four. They saw it as an attempt to stop them from learning English, and to therefore marginalize them in society (80-2).
Overall, English has a long history of prestige, and of being associated with solving many pragmatic concerns. Whether it be power and advancement, education and intelligence, economic and social gain, modernization, communication or inclusion, being proficient in English is the pragmatic cure-all that will solve all of one’s difficulties. It is not surprising then that English is viewed in a positive light, and that it is promoted as the preferable medium of instruction in schools, as it has all of these motivations backing it.
A Positive History and the Inability to Change
There are, however, some less pragmatic reasons given for why attitudes towards English are so favorable. In his article Dseagu claims that English is regarded in a positive light because of a positive history. Specifically, he claims that because the English were historical allies of the Asante, and because the various English governors either died for their allies or were excellent diplomats, the English language has therefore developed a favorable reputation which led to its adoption as an official language (59-60).
Another argument in favor of maintaining English as the language of instruction is motivated by the notion that to change would be impossible. As Adegbija notes, people are “used to English functioning predominantly in the educational domain” and that “indigenous languages are seen as incapable” of performing the same functions (95). In addition, Schmied notes that many African nations, including Ghana, “are so absorbed in day-to-day problems that they have neither the energy nor the means to attempt fundamental changes in the sociolinguistic situation” (19). An example of a more pressing problem is noted by Obeng, specifically genocide in parts of Northern Ghana since 1991 (78). Obviously debates on the language of instruction appear insignificant in comparison.
However, not all attitudes towards English and instruction in English are favorable. Some, like Dei are vehement in their disapprobation for the “coloniser’s language” (423). Dei seeks to highlight the “importance of language in the articulation of notions of culture, history and identity” by avidly promoting indigenous languages as mediums of instruction (421). Indeed, according to Dei, “the colonialist agenda of discarding and supplanting [students’] mother tongues serves to impede the natural course of [their] socio-cognitive development, while simultaneously inflicting a lifelong spirit injury and psychological damage to [their] sense of self-worth, self-reliance and pride” (424). While Dei’s opinions are the most extreme, other academics such as Adegbija agree that many are still ‘mentally colonized’, and therefore continue to see European languages as “inherently superior to African languages” (84). Thus, teaching in local languages is presented as an effective means of cultural preservation.
In part, Dei’s argument relies on the idea that English, as the colonizer’s languages, is not a true national language, and should therefore be rejected, or at the very least secondary to indigenous languages (421-4). It is important to note, however, that some like Dseagu see English’s status as the colonizer’s language as a positive thing – when English is nobody’s language, it can be neutral and beneficial (59).
Cognitive Development and Corpus Planning
Academics in the field of Education also tend to promote indigenous languages as mediums of instruction on the basis of studies demonstrating that such a course of action is beneficial to the cognitive development of children. Mfum-Mensah takes this approach, and his opinion is seconded by statements from international agencies such as UNESCO as cited by Skutnabb-Kangas and Schmied (Mfum-Mensah 71-2, Skutnabb-Kangas 597, Schmied 19).
In addition, academics tend to bemoan the fact that a lack of resources, orthography or of any such corpus planning for indigenous languages automatically privileges English as the medium of instruction (Adegbija 83, Obeng 79, Mfum-Mensah 81). Another aspect to this dilemma which upsets Adegbija in particular is the frequent provision of “aids in the form of books, [and] sponsoring projects” by the “colonial masters”, which in turn boosts the prestige and dominance of European languages (84-5). A Ghana-specific example appeared in the Accra Daily Mail, where the re-launch of the “Education UK Brand” program was announced, and its aim of recruiting “international students” to “help secure the UK’s position as a leader in international education” was articulated. Nevertheless, despite scholars’ upset, it is important to note that it is unlikely that there will be a push to study local languages while attitudes towards English remain favorable.
The Advocates Behind the Arguments
It is interesting to take note of what attitudes are espoused by what groups. Academics tend to promote indigenous languages, and have negative attitudes towards education in English. Those who do view English, and instruction in English in a positive light tend to be non-academic Ghanaians, ie. reporters for Ghanaian newspapers. Their attitudes are mostly motivated by an ingrained sense of English as a prestige language, and by the pragmatism of aspiring to acquire a language that promises such prestige. Academics, on the other hand, tend to think about the effects upon indigenous languages as a whole (Adegbija, Obeng), or on the learning processes of children (Mfum-Mensah, Dei). In addition, unlike the ordinary Ghanaians interviewed by Mfum-Mensah, the academics who advocate instruction in indigenous languages are already occupying a prestige position implied by their proficiency in English – their ambitions have been fulfilled and articulated using English, placing them in a rather ironic and hypocritical position.
Pidgin in Education
Pidgin is rarely mentioned in the context of education, and is not seriously considered as a medium of instruction. According to Huber, Saah and Egblewogbe, Pidgin is associated to a certain extent with illiteracy (Huber 148, Saah 372, Egblewogbe qtd. in Huber, PACE Newsletter On-line). Indeed, Huber also notes that Pidgin is more stigmatized in Ghana than in any other West African nation (Huber 139). However, Huber, Obeng and Saah all remark upon a relatively new trend involving the use of a modified educated Pidgin by secondary and tertiary level school-boys in informal situations as an in-group language (Huber 147-52, PACE Newsletter On-line, Obeng 65, Saah 372). At the tertiary level in particular the use of Pidgin in the classroom is attracting negative attention, as its use is discouraged not only by official prohibitions instated by university authorities, but by public outcry in the news media, as a newspaper article entitled “Stop Speaking Pidgin English” clearly indicates (Accra Daily Mail).
Different scholars advance different interpretations of the future of this debate. Huber claims that the new ‘educated Pidgin’ is in fact spreading, and that it is a phenomenon that bears watching (151). However, scholars like Obeng centre their predictions on indigenous languages, indicating that the stigma attached to Pidgin perseveres. In fact Obeng claims that many indigenous languages will die out, but that majority indigenous languages like Akan will eventually rise and gain in prestige over time (77-9). Granted, Obeng’s article came out before 2003, so his predictions do not take the change in educational policy into account. Despite these predictions, the present status of the debate is relatively clear, as the new educational policy highlights the continued prestige accorded to standard English by Ghanaian lawmakers, and presumably by their constituents. This new policy indicates a push to increase the language’s role as the medium of instruction in the Ghanaian education system, and it is a good indication that Ghanaians’ attitudes towards English for the most part remain positively associated with future benefits. Thus, while academics continue to predict a future of a prestigious Pidgin and of indigenous languages as the mediums of instruction, Ghanaian children are currently educated in a standard variety of English.
Contemporary Arguments and Opinions in the Media
“Education UK brand re-launched in Ghana.” Accra Daily Mail 14 Sept. 2006. 2 Nov. 2006 <http://www.accra-mail.com/mailnews.asp?ID=18176>. Links education, English, and success. The opinion of English as a global language and as a language of prestige.
“Stop speaking Pidgin English.” Accra Daily Mail 29 Oct. 2002. 2 Nov. 2006 <http://www.accra-mail.com/mailnews.asp?ID=3197>. Demonstrates the link between higher education and standard English use. Opinions against WAPE and for standard English are demonstrated.
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