Baptist Women Make Case for Indigenous Language Proficiency In Public Discourse in Liberia

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 29, 2016


In late March 2016, I received invitation from the Women’s Department of Zion Ebenezer Baptist Church in Harper, Maryland County to participate in an honoring program at the church on Sunday, March 27. The program was being held to honor Professor Elizabeth Davis-Russell, Ed.D, PhD, President of William V. S. Tubman University, for her invaluable services to education of women and girls in Maryland County and Liberia. Dr. Davis-Russell is a native of Maryland County and the first female president of Tubman University, and by extension the only female head of a higher institution of learning in the history of the county. She would later tell her audience how she was born to a Kru mother and spoke Kru until age 11 but lost her mother tongue over the years. She regretted her present inability to speak the Kru language, and admonished the Baptist women to encourage or teach their children to become bilingual and multilingual personalities in their growth and development.

But what all this talk about bilingualism, multilingualism, and Kru language proficiency at a program organized to honor a personality in education? Well, the Baptist women made proficiency in indigenous Liberian languages a cornerstone of the program. The entire program - opening prayer, program introduction, announcements, songs, birth month rally, scripture reading,  pastoral message, the actual honoring ceremony, vote of thanks, and benediction - was conducted  in indigenous Liberian languages, mainly in Grebo and Kru, but also in Bassa, Kissi, and Gola. The only English words and phrases one heard during the program came from remarks by the honoree and invited guests like myself,
Figure 1: Baptist Women Singing at Honoring Program.

and a reading of the certificate of honor by one of the program organizers in Creole, a Sierra Leonean Pidgin English variety.

Indeed, whatever the Baptist women’s motivation or goal for organizing the honoring program in the manner and style they did, the program was both an eye-opener for me and a confirmation of the argument that language proficiency is not betrothed to any particular language. I was captivated by the melodious Christian songs sang in the various indigenous languages and the rhythms of drumming that accompanied each song, but I was equally hamstrung by the fact that I had to mentally torture myself in trying to decipher what was being said by one speaker after another. Several times during the program the honoree and I conferred (I sat next to her) regarding our guesses of what was being said, but that’s all we could do. Sure, I nodded my head now and then and moved my feet several times in response to the songs and drumming, but I understood not a word of what was being said except for statements by one presenter who spoke in my native Bassa language. At that moment I felt like I was reliving the classical biblical story of the Tower of Babel wherein a group of people who heretofore spoke a common language during Sunday worship services —in this case English—soon found themselves torn apart by language barrier and grasping for interpretation and understanding of what was being said by the speakers in the various vernacular languages.  

The Baptist women were elegantly dressed in their matching blue-and-white lappa suits and head-ties. And, as we would normally say in Liberia after a heartwarming ceremony, the program was “short and sweet.”  For the first time in my life I saw a Baptist pastor preached for only ten minutes during a formal program. The honoree was also too overwhelmed to speak beyond four minutes, and my own remarks and those of other invited guests were very brief. More importantly, the program started and ended on time, which was an unorthodox proposition for an honoring program in Liberian settings.

Linguistic Lessons

The linguistic lessons inherent in the Baptist women’s honoring program have far-reaching implications for the development and promotion of indigenous language proficiency in public discourse in Liberia. English is the lingua franca and official language in Liberia, so almost all public and private programs held in Liberia are conducted in English, including birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, government pronouncements, and related activities. Indigenous or vernacular languages such as Grebo, Kru, Bassa, Kissi, Kpelle, and Gola are mother tongues for very large segments of people in Liberia, if not the majority population. But these vernacular languages are not normally taught in Liberian grade schools, high schools, and colleges, except for a two-semester course in Grebo at Tubman University, and an elective course in Kpelle at the University of Liberia.  

Public discourse and intellectual thought in Liberia still regard the various Liberian vernacular languages as inferior to English and as a caricature or prime domain of a primitive class unwilling to advance beyond village lifestyles.  As a result, many young Liberians grow up not knowing their mother tongue, and some are even ashamed to speak an indigenous language in public so much so that they will shun any opportunity to learn one or more of the sixteen major indigenous languages of Liberia. Even at Tubman University the number of students enrolling in Grebo language and culture every semester is often scanty, as compared to the number of students enrolling in French language and culture. For no matter how much Grebo language Professor Henry Woart proclaims the existence of syntactic differences between Grebo and Glebo, the number of students taking Grebo is bound to remain scanty for a very long time into the future, given the current lack of recognition and respect for  the various vernacular languages by many persons in Liberian society.

Many Liberian families, students, teachers, and officials still regard and use English - howbeit Liberian Pidgin English - as the preferred language and only means of interpersonal or group communication. There are hardly any attempts by the national government to make one of the sixteen major languages - especially those with their own phonetic scripts such as Bassa, Kpelle, Vai, Lorma, and Mende - a  national language, if not a regional language in the region of Liberia in which each language is widely spoken. But the seeds to this general lack of interest in developing and promoting the various vernacular languages of Liberia among the young people whose mother tongue happened to be one of these languages were planted long ago through official governmental neglect.

In Liberia of yesteryears it was an undignified or forbidden act for any young person of school age to speak an indigenous language at school, church, home, or playground.  Children were forcefully discouraged from learning and speaking an indigenous language in public through various forms of punishment meted out by parents, teachers, and school officials. The emphasis was always on children learning and speaking English with finesse , as if the national goal or desire was to create an English-only society in an African nation of multiple indigenous African languages and dialects. 

Nearly all official public functions were conducted in English and structured mainly to cater to an English-only audience, except for particular events and programs at which traditional chiefs and elders had been invited.   At these special occasions efforts were often made to provide verbal interpretations of English words and phrases uttered  by a given public official, keynote speaker, or guest from either prepared text or extemporaneous speech into the relevant vernacular language(s) of the invited chiefs and elders. Sadly, many Liberian children and adults alive today lack the ability to not only speak and understand the indigenous language of their mother tongues, but also the fortitude to connect to and develop appreciation for their traditional language and culture. These lingering issues with prioritizing English proficiency at the expense of the development and promotion of the indigenous Liberian languages were part of the reason why I saw the Baptist women’s program as an eye-opener for me.

For the first time in my life I saw myself sitting at a public event for nearly two hours without the slightest inclinations of what each speaker who mounted the podium said. No interpretations were available, and my proficiency in English was just not enough to save me from the kind of agony, anxiety, resignation, disillusionment, and uncertainty I felt throughout the program from hearing the speakers speak but not understanding what was being said.  It was at this point that it dawned on me the sort of discomfort and awful feelings that traditional chiefs and elders must have felt as they regularly sat through various public events and programs for hours listening to lengthy presidential, ministerial,   and related speeches being delivered in English instead of in their indigenous languages. The opposite was however true at the Baptist women’s program.  During the honoring program, the Baptist women invariably turned the table against those who had heretofore believed in creating an English-only society in Liberia by making indigenous Liberian language proficiency rather English proficiency to take center stage.  

Language Theorists on Development and Use of Language

In my speech, language, and learning class at Tubman University students are often engaged in spirited discussions about whether language development is a learned behavior or an innate ability. Cognitive theorist Lev Vygotsky, behaviorist B. F. Skinner and psychologist Jean Piaget notably subscribed to the notion that language development is a learned behavior reinforced by familial influences and other environmental factors, while linguist Noam Chomsky and cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner believed that language development comes easier to most children because of a combination of innate biological factors in regard to how the human brain receives, interprets, and applies language.  Chomsky and other psycholinguists believe that language development and acquisition in human is tied directly to the human brain, which contains a mental plan guided by an independent rule system that makes it possible for each human to understand and generate language.

The issue of whether or not language is a learned behavior or an innate ability is still an unsettled matter in both linguistic studies and basic human social interactions. Speech and language developments among both children and adults within internal and external linguistic environments, or the general problems of language acquisition and use across national borders are still subject to debates, while many children with speech impairments and language delays associated with autism and related speech and neurological disorders tend to miss out on certain human social-interactions. Many human behaviors, language patterns, and learning practices are greatly influenced by the environment, culture, society, and other observable factors found in interactions with others. But Harold Schieffman reminds us that language is not only “a rule-governed human communicative system, ” but also that language is a cultural construct that is not necessarily “inherited genetically from one’s parents” but rather transmitted to each generation with little change.

The idea that language is transmitted from one generation to another without change may seem baffling at first, but a careful analysis of linguistic greeting codes such as “hi” or “hello” provides sufficient clues. Indeed, since the dawn of human existence the need for people of different human races to communicate within households, communities, and across land and sea borders has been a daunting experience.  The diversity of learning styles, speech patterns, and languages (written, spoken, and sign) also makes it impossible for humans to learn of anything about themselves and their surroundings without the blessings of   language.

My speech, language, and learning class was very much animated over the notions of linguistic determinism (i.e., language determines certain human thought) and linguistic relativity (i.e., unique distinctions within individual languages), as well as the general idea that language transcends multiple generations without much change.  The students referenced specific words, phrases, proverbs in their mainly Grebo, Kru,  Bassa, Kpelle, and Krahn languages that still retain the same pronunciations and meanings from generations past, in  tacit support of Schiefflin claim about the unchangeability of language. They were mostly divided over the concepts of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity however. And after much exploration with related topics such as mother tongue, vernacular language, and lingua franca, one student offered a few glances into what he saw as a preposterous linguistic conflict in his family. The student is married and he and his wife hail from the Grebo ethnic group, but they speak different Grebo dialects: he speaks Buah Grebo of Grand Kru County, while his wife speaks Tienpo Grebo of Rivergee County. Interestingly, their children speak neither Tienpo Grebo nor Buah Grebo but Twi, a variant of Ghanaian Akan language which they learned while living in the refugee camp in Ghana during the height of the Liberian civil war.

The student says he definitely wants his children to learn the Grebo language, and it wouldn’t matter if they learned to speak Buah Grebo or Tienpo Grebo, although he says Grebo tradition mandates that the children should learn the language of the father. However, he says his greatest fear is not his lack of ability to teach the children Tienpo Grebo, but if the children - who are already young adults and themselves college students - will ever abandon Twi in favor of Grebo. At present in his home he says the only means of family communication is English, which bothers him very much. He told the class that he regrets the current situation that his children cannot communicate in their mother tongue but English and Twi, and wishes that if he had known what he now knows about the importance of language as an identity factor in a person’s life, he would have taught his children the Tienpo dialect long ago. But he says just as many parents in urban Liberia constantly do, he opted to teach his children only English based on the common belief that children who spoke English were more likely to succeed in Liberian society than children who did not speak English.   

The decision of the Baptist women to showcase their various vernacular languages at the honoring program highlights a key debate in linguistic circles about the importance of language in a person’s life. To philosopher Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, “Without language, thought is vague, uncharted nebula” in that “There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language, ” in that given its interpretative qualities and ontological values, “In truth, the way to language has its unique region within the essence of language itself. ” Both de Saussure and Heidegger believe that language speaks and conjures up humans to act in certain ways, and that, according to Heidegger, “we [humans] do not merely speak the language - we speak by way of it. ”  

In these spheres of thought by de Saussure and Heidegger, and the general idea by the Baptist women to host an honoring program entirely in Liberian indigenous languages point to the general  essence of language as directing and influencing communicative matters relating to a variety of human social interactions and cultural, linguistic, religious, professional, or fraternal practices.  The Baptist women thought to inform learned western-educated Liberian  scholars, teachers, researchers, and  preachers that efforts to create an English-only society has outlived its usefulness so that it was now time to begin to look inward in developing and promoting the various Liberian languages for use in education, government service, and public discourse. The languages, cultures, and traditions of the 16-plus indigenous ethnic groups of Liberia are complete mysteries to many Liberians—young and old, Western educated or otherwise, who know little or nothing about their own language and culture but also the fact that several Liberian ethnic groups developed their own language scripts for scholarly pursuits as far back as early 1800s and 1900s (i.e., Vai script in 1832 and the Bassa Vah script in 1962). The message by the Baptist women is that it is now time to change track and begin utilizing all the resources of Liberia, including language resources and cultures, for the development and growth of Liberia. Indeed, the message at the Baptist women’s program was very clear and urgent.

Schieffman, Harold F. Linguistic Culture and Language Policy. (New York: Routledge, 1996). p. 55.

Schieffman p. 8-9.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. “Linguistic Value.” The Communication Theory Reader. (New York: Routledge, 1996). p. 99.

Heidegger, Martin.  On The Way To Language. (New York: Harper and Row, 1971). p. 130.

Heidegger, p. 124.


sylvester moses
Thank you Mr. Gbessagee for this moving, and yet hilarious, reminder from the Baptist women that whoever loses the native language has lost roots, and, therefore, to some extent, cultural heritage. As most people know, language is so important that in the past when a foreign nation or group invaded, conquered, and occupied the land of others, the first thing they did after solidifying their triumph was to impose their language (and culture) to cement control and power over the new lands. That’s how Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, and English were respectively more widely spoken, and the last three still are. Granted, there were enormous benefits in the fact that the subdued people joined a larger stream of language, however, not only that there was a constant reminder of having lost a link to their heritage, but also a nagging sense of inferiority to the victorious dominant culture.

Which reminds of the impassioned literary argument between the mid - 1950’s and 1960’s about whether it was legitimate to classify novels written by Africans in European languages (Portuguese, French, English etc.) as African Literature. And the irony wasn’t lost on them that there activisms through various literary genres against colonialism and neocolonialism referred to as “Protest and Conflict in African Literature” were perforce expressed in the lingua franca of the then despised colonial masters. To change what they thought was untenable, a conference on the matter zeroed on Swahili as the official language to use. Unfortunately, practical considerations made the transition impossible - not understood by most of the writers, restrictive audience, publishing costs, and so on.

Once again, congrats Galarea to have confidently held the steering while maneuvering this vehicle along the hazardous roads of Harper, and, incidentally, down our personal memory lane without boring us a bit. And because of the lesson from those wonderful and wily Baptist women, we have no regrets, and appreciate more holding on to the language of both parents (Kru), regardless of distance and other influences. What a clarion call to Liberians of the larger Diaspora that no matter whether they intend to reside home or not, there children can also hold on to the culture through the languages.
sylvester moses at 10:18AM, 2016/04/30.
Kandajaba Zoebohn Zoedjallah
Thanks Dr. Gbessagee, I wonder it is because Ellen Johnson Sirleaf can't even say hello in her own dialect Gola that she has been able to excell this far. Or her failed leadership is the result of her NOT knowing one single word in her own Gola dialect?

Dr.Gbessagee and Director Moses, please help me viz my inquiries sirs. Bring a Gola myself from the Senjeh clan, I want to know too.
Kandajaba Zoebohn Zoedjallah at 02:57PM, 2016/04/30.
sylvester moses
Mr. Kandajaba ZoeJallah, thanks for the vote of confidence, but educator Dr. Elizabeth Davis - Russell, a former professor of psychology (if memory serves me right), is better equipped to answer questions about behavior, motivation, or mental state.
sylvester moses at 04:45PM, 2016/04/30.
Kandajaba Zoebohn Zoedjallah
If Ellen could speak her native dialect, she would not have been a Lee Hew, but she would have not been THE MERCENARY MENTALITY she is. She would have known that prostitution is both immoral and illegal in Liberia, and she would not have sais "prostitution is not immoral nor illegal"! Thanks Director Moses, but do not bet on Dr. Davis Russel providing any professional analysis nor objective response, since she us a hard working individual and would not prefer to be less busy as a result if saying it as it is and ends up losing her job.
Kandajaba Zoebohn Zoedjallah at 01:48AM, 2016/05/03.
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