Code switching: learning Ghanaian English


One of the first difficulties to solve when coming to a new place is communication. When visiting new countries, there is a certain level of language barrier between you and the residents of the host country. Many times this requires learning a completely new language or at least survival words and phrases such as, "Donde esta el baño?" But in some cases, the new place speaks the same language as you but with minor differences. This can even happen within the same country. If you visit Cajun regions of the southern U.S., you will quickly see that Cajun English is very different from the English spoken in most of the country. Or think about actors portraying characters in Boston or Texas. In order to communicate with others in these situations, a person uses a process called code switching. Code switching is when, within the same language, words, phrases, accent, speed, and grammar are changed so that the people talking can better understand each other. People often do it without even thinking about it.

I, along with many people, use this same process within the U.S. often. Friends will tell me that my accent changes when talking to my family in southern Arkansas on the phone. My accent is much stronger speaking with my family than with my friends. Language is a strong interest of mine, and code switching is something I have often studied. For a university class, I even recorded multiple family members from southern Arkansas and presented the recordings as a project to my English professor. Every language evolves and grows, and code switching is an important way to bridge between different people and cultures.

Many people in Ghana speak English or at least speak enough English to have a simple conversation. One can assume that this English is different than English in other contexts because of local languages, history, and culture. For example, two large influences in Ghana are Pigeon English and British English. So, in order to understand and be understood by locals, it is advantageous to learn some basic code switching. This is also a great way to connect to the local people, to learn a part of their culture, and to enjoy adapting.

In Ghana, many words and phrases are uniquely used or have slightly different meanings than they would outside of this region. Instead of saying "eat" Ghanaians say "chop" (e.g. I am hungry. I want to chop.) Anytime one would usually say "will" here they say "go" (e.g. I go see you tomorrow.) In the local language of the region of Northern Ghana in which I have spent the most time, the use of "it" as an object of a sentence is assumed. Many times, when a local speaks English, this grammar is in the translation. For example "Where did it go?" is shortened to "Where go?" Sometimes words are used more broadly than in other regions. The word "finished" is used when something is done, over, completed, and broken. When someone explains something to you in order to express understanding you respond with “yo.” When a team wins over another, the term commonly used here is "blasted" (e.g. “My team blasted yours.”)

A next level of the code switching process is changing accent. Ghanaians don't make the "th" sound. This one is even more unique because "th" actually has two different pronunciations: voiced such as in "the" and unvoiced as in "with." Say both and listen closely to how the "the" sound has a small vibration in the throat unlike in "with." For the "th" in "the" replace the sound with a “D." For the "th" in "with", use a "T" (e.g. I go to "dee" store/ I sit "wit" him.) Another common switch is the "R" to a soft "L," unless the “R” is at the end of a sentence, then it is dropped (e.g. "tlouble" for "trouble" and "watah" for “water”.) Also, when saying "I'm", it is pronounced as "Am." Other words with "I" usually change to hard "E" sound (e.g. "is" becomes "ees.") Almost all "o" sounds are long like "oh" (e.g. "got" is pronounced like "goat.") Finally, “ask” is pronounced like “ax.”

These examples are in no way exhaustive. They are not even one-hundred percent accurate. These are aspects of Ghanaian English that I have been able to pick up from my short time here. And yes, you can speak in your own accent and usually be understood. But on more than one occasion, my code switching has helped. For me, this process is an important way for me to connect to people and appreciate their culture. I also consider listening and learning new code switches incredibly fun. I have found friends with whom, when we talk together, many aspects of my speaking change. My entire communication sounds and feels different, and because of this, we connect. I get to sit in a circle with friends and get closer to being part of another person's life.

Photos: Words and phrases in Ghanaian English don't have the same meanings and connotations as in American English. For example, "69 Fans" refers to a certain musician and does not carry the same meaning as in America.