This panel was concerned with the difficulties caused by the use of European languages in media whose practitioners use languages that are indigenous to Africa. The use of the English language by journalists in Ghana can result in some mind-boggling, and sometimes humorous, sentence construction, or can lead the average reader into feeling alienated, argued Modestus Fosu of the Ghana Institute of Journalism.
Fosu’s presentation focused on English-language print publications in Ghana and examined their language style. What he found was what he called semantic exclusivism.
Semantic exclusivism refers to a situation where newspapers, instead of words and expressions to create images in readers minds and attract readership, unknowingly use language that a majority of the targeted readership cannot identify with or understand.
In practical terms, this means that Ghanaian journalists are writing in a way that is lost on the average reader. If it is assumed that democracy depends on a well-informed populace, and media plays a role in providing information, then the Ghanaian public and democracy are not being well-served by print media.
The situation is particularly acute in Ghana, which has low-levels of literacy and does not consider itself a “reading culture”. The use of alienating language can cause many not to attempt to read newspapers.
Fosu proposed three proposals that could improve language usage:
- English language skills should be taught in all journalism schools;
- In addition to grammar and writing, particular attention should be paid to the use of language in media;
- Students should be made to study “style-developing areas” that would emphasize the practical applications of writing and language.
He argued that these proposals would result in journalism students who could use language in a clear manner that would widen newspaper accessibility and deepen democracy.
Ghana’s problems with the usage of English are not unique. In Malawi, poor language skills can result in confusing headlines and poor translation skills lead to articles taking on a monotone, said Edward Chitsulo of the University of Malawi in Blantyre.
Chitsulo said that in the last 20 years there has been a lack of quality language skills among media professionals. Journalists, when asked to describe a story verbally, often tell a much better story than what they have written. Chitsulo argued that this is due to English language composition not being treated with the importance it deserves.
This can be blamed on a few factors, including weak or non-existent reading and literature programmes in schools, absence of debate as a skill, teachers not insisting students use English exclusively, and the advent of television, which has replaced books, magazines and other print entertainments.
Chitsulo gave several examples of headlines, such as ‘Mother sleeps with five-year-old twins’, which had unintentional double meanings. He attributed this to “linguistic inference syndrome”, in which the use of English as a second language misses subtext in language. He blamed this on the plurality of languages used by Malawian journalists, a lack of “drilling” in which a student is taught nuances in a language, and “an sms culture”, where brevity of messages and a loosening of grammatical correctness is accepted.
There was also a gap in skills by Malawian journalists around translation, grammar and newsgathering. Chitsulo recounted stories where the journalist had interpreted an interviewee for quotation rather than making a direct translation, resulting in the football player sounding like an intellectual.
In order to correct the situation, he recommended that students be made to study literature and language, journalism curriculums be reviewed by media managers as well as teachers and experts, skills such as translation and note-taking be taught as key skills and that selection of students and new journalists be made more stringent.
While Chitsulo and Faso noted the foibles that result from the use of English by non-English speakers, Professor Abiodun Salawu of the University of Fort Hare took a different approach, looking at how journalism students could be prepared to work in their own, indigenous languages in the field of print.
Professor Salawu argued that the use of indigenous languages in media could heighten their usage and rescue them, increase self-esteem and combat negative perceptions, create greater cohesiveness and political influence, provide a symbol for the language-users, and provide an outlet for creative productions and employment.
The use of indigenous languages in media can be the salvation of those languages. However, this requires universities to teach it in their journalism programmes, which is not typically the case.
Professor Salawu argued that to avoid the teaching of indigenous language in journalism programmes was to disregard both present realities and a past which comprises a rich history and culture. The challenge of indigenous language newspapers was being met by several newspapers in the Yoruba language in Nigeria, most of the 125 newspapers in Ethiopia, which are in local languages, and by isiZulu publications in South Africa.