The Futility of Language Shaming First Generation People

By Amma Appiah

I am a first generation American from Ghana. I recently visited my parents in Ghana and I decided to vlog (video record) my twelve-day trip. In one of the vlogs I uploaded to YouTube, I was showing some of the cloth I had just purchased from the market. I mispronounced the name of one of the cloths and a fellow Ghanaian made sure to criticize me for it. He said:

Commenter: You people are too American… Try and learn the local language. You couldn’t even pronounce the name of the cloth. Hahahaha
Me: Hey, I was born in America. I can’t change my accent. Thank you for watching though. Have a blessed day.
Commenter: Lol..That’s no excuse. I know Ghanaians born in America who speak Twi flawlessly. Didn’t say you should change accent, but try and learn cos u are one of us.
Me: I hear what you’re saying and you make valid points. However, I don’t necessarily agree with everything you said. Just because I mispronounce the name of a cloth wrong, doesn’t mean I am not trying to learn. I knew when I was saying it, it wouldn’t sound right but that didn’t stop me from trying. Here in Maryland, I speak English and so does my family. I know first generation Ghanaians (like myself) who don’t speak Twi well and there are others (as the ones you mentioned) who speak it flawlessly. I think it depends on how one was raised and what was spoken at home. I wasn’t raised speaking Twi and we spoke only English in my home. As an adult, I try my best to learn what I can here and there but it won’t be flawless and that doesn’t mean I am not trying to learn either.
After this interaction, I felt the need to discuss Language Shaming because that’s what I considered his commentary to be. I am open to criticism and critiques hence why the comment section enables anyone to leave a comment. However, I feel this comment was invalid and purposeless. I feel that any critique or criticism needs to have substance and proper delivery that is free from all shade. First and foremost he started off wrong by writing “You people,” “too American,” and, the finale, “try and learn.” Who said I wasn’t trying to learn? His commentary is what I’ve heard throughout my life in regards to me being Ghanaian and my Twi competency. It’s annoying.

I stated in my previous blog post here that my mother never taught my brothers or me Twi. I am not blaming her because she was a busy single mom working multiple jobs. Working sixteen hours a day, she didn’t have time to give us Twi lessons. That was not a priority. She spoke what we understood and what would get her message across. It’s just that simple. It has nothing to do with being “too American.” It has everything to do with being practical and efficient.

I think the assumption is that because I don’t know Twi that automatically means I don’t want to learn or that I’m not “trying” to learn. Both are false assumptions. When it comes to speaking any language, practice makes perfect. I don’t practice my Twi as much because everyone I know speaks English. Who am I going to practice with? When I do try to speak it, that’s when people (other Ghanaians) mock me or make fun of the way I say things (due to my accent). Sometimes they just bust out laughing. I thought about editing out that part (in my vlog) where I said the cloth name because I knew my pronunciation was off. However, I decided to keep it in the vlog because I didn’t think it was a big deal. Clearly it was.

As filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu said in Elle Magazine South Africa, “When I am in America, I feel very Ghanaian and when I’m in Ghana, I feel more American.” This speaks to the notion that there is something wrong with being “too American.” I am American. I was born and raised here. That “too American” comment reminded me of when people would tell me that I was only Ghanaian because my parents were from Ghana. As a result, I started telling people I was Ghanaian when they asked me where I was from. When I said that, the response was always “Wow but you speak English so well!!” As if I was supposed to take that as a compliment. I find that statement offensive because I have close friends and family born and raised in Ghana that speak English perfectly.

I think such a comment and even the vlog comment have more to do with accents and less to do with language proficiency. I think that if I had said the cloth name with a thick Ghanaian accent, he wouldn’t have said I was “too American.” At the end of the day, I am American and very proud of it! I am also Ghanaian and very proud of it! I am allowed to be both. As my best friend once said: “Do NOT try to question my Ghanaian authenticity, this is not a contest. I have nothing to prove.”

I typed “language shaming” into Google search and I came across this Huffington Post article entitled “What a Shame, You Do Not Speak ‘Your Own Language’.” This excerpt below reminded me of the time when this Ghanaian guy said to me in dismay “Your name is Amma but you don’t speak Twi?”
“The client immediately shot back: ‘How is it you don’t speak Spanish? Mmm! It’s a shame that living in Los Angeles you do not speak your own language. If you look more Mexican than me,’ emphasized the client, looking around for an acknowledgement to support his unfortunate comments.”
This excerpt alone shows that a lot of first generation people deal with language shaming, not only first generation Africans.

No matter the ethnic background of an individual, language shaming is a futile practice. Everyone has different cultural life-experiences. My experience is my experience and no one else’s. I cannot be compared to other first generation Ghanaians who speak Twi “flawlessly.” The right thing to do would be to teach and not disrespect. It’s also important not to laugh at or judge me for my mispronunciation because it’s counterproductive. It does not encourage me to “try and learn.”

Photo: Shutterstock

My name is Amma but I go by Amma Mama online and social media. I have a lifestyle blog where I share my travels, a few of my favorite things, and some random things in between.

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