A big motivation for me to join the Peace Corps was for the opportunity to learn a new language. In high school I attempted to learn Spanish. In college I attempted to learn Swedish. After college I attempted to learn French. Sure I could conjugate verbs with the best of them. However, I wasn’t able hold an extended conversation with someone in a foreign language and that’s the purpose of language, right? I think part of the reason for this is lack of conversation practice. You can spend hours inside of a classroom learning a language, but if you don’t speak it outside the classroom you will never be fluent. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to do this through the Peace Corps.
Initially when I was invited to serve in Ghana I was I bit disappointed that the official language is English (Ghana being a former British colony). I was hoping for the chance to learn French in a former French colony. Ironically, the three countries surrounding Ghana are former French colonies: Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Togo. However, I quickly learned that over 60 different languages are spoken in Ghana. So I would definitely get the chance to learn and speak a foreign language.
As you may know, the Peace Corps doesn’t give volunteers much of a choice of which country they serve in. Likewise they don’t give volunteers much of a choice where they live within the country they serve. You just have to trust the Peace Corps knows what’s best for you. The Peace Corps chose to send me to the Volta Region where Ewe is mostly spoken. Ewe is also spoken in Togo, Benin, and parts of Nigeria, which are the three countries east of Ghana. The Germans first recorded Ewe as a written language when they colonized the Ewe speaking region of West Africa before World War II. To this day some universities in Germany teach Ewe language courses. In fact, many people automatically think I’m German when they see me trying to speak Ewe.
After over three months of trying to speak Ewe, I have to say it is much more difficult to learn than Spanish or French. Ewe is tonal language. So you can have the same word, but depending on the tone of your voice the meaning changes. For example, the word “to” in high tone it means to pound, in low tone it means animal, and in nasal tone means thick. Since English (or Spanish and French) doesn’t utilize tones, it’s very difficult for me to understand the difference between high tone and low tone.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to find a teacher. The director of my local NGO has connected me with a retired Ewe university teacher. After a few lessons with him, I can already tell he has a wealth of knowledge about not only the Ewe language, but also the Ewe culture. Plus, he has plenty of experience teaching. In fact, he says that he taught Ewe to another American, who is now fluent in Ewe, lives in Ghana, and has written an Ewe-English dictionary. I’m not looking to be the next write a novel in Ewe, but after learning from Togbe (Togbe means chief or grandfather in Ewe) I hope to be on my way to Ewe fluency.