The Urgency of Teaching Languages in Liberian Schools

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Why have Liberian schools, colleges and universities usually neglected to include Liberian and other languages in their curricula? When we mention languages, we have two things in mind. The first is Liberian languages. The University of Liberia (UL), the nation’s oldest institution of higher learning, used to teach Vai, Kpelle and Gola, in addition to French, German and Chinese.

But we understand that it now teaches Kpelle only—why? Do they not know how important Vai is? Vai is one of the only two African languages with their own original scripts, unrelated to the Latin or the Arabic alphabets. This great language was invented by Momolu Dualu Bukele in a dream. When he awoke, he started writing the script because in his dream, the Chief told him to write the proceedings of a council he was having the following morning.

That is how Bukele started developing the script for Vai. During World War II, the Germans used the Vai to develop a code to fight their enemies. Vai is taken seriously in some German universities. The language was encouraged in Germany by Momolu Massaquoi, husband of Old Lady Rachel Massaquoi of Carey Street, Snapper Hill, Monrovia. Mr. Massaquoi was appointed Liberian Consul General in Hamburg, Germany in 1922, believed to be the first indigenous African to serve as a diplomat in Germany.

Born of a warrior queen on a Liberian battlefield, Mr. Massaquoi was heir to two African royal families and served as the youngest ever king of the Vais of Grand Cape Mount County. With Liberia on the brink of bankruptcy, Momolu Massaquoi was appointed the first Minister Consul General in Hamburg, in an attempt to revive trade.

He was the father of Arthur Massaquoi, the late former Director of the Bureau of Mines and Geology (now Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy); the late Madam Fatima Massaaquoi Fahnbulleh, a long time outstanding English teacher at UL; and Fritz Massaquoi, the famous Liberian painter. Momolu Massaquoi was the grandfather of Hans Jurgen Massaquoi, son of one of Momolu Massaquoi’s sons and a German nurse.

Hans left Germany, the land of his birth, for the USA on a student visa and later became an American citizen. After graduating in Journalism from the University of Illinois, he joined Jet Magazine and later Ebony, both famous African American magazines. He later became Managing Editor of Ebony, the first and probably the only African to hold that position.

The other West African language with its own original script is the Bamum language, developed 2000 miles away from Grand Cape Mount County, in Grassfield, Cameroon. In the Stanton B. Peabody Library at the Daily Observer, there is a copy of the Holy Bible in Vai, among the collection of several Liberian language Bibles in that library. Another unique Liberian linguistic development is the Bassa Vah, the written form of the Bassa language.

It is this language which Harbel College in Harbel, on the Firestone Plantation, that is now being introduced as part of the curriculum. The dynamic and visionary President of Harbel College, Dr. Syrulwa Somah, whom our ace artistic and cultural reporter, Robin Dopoe, describes as “a passionate advocate for culture,” has decided to introduce Bassa Vah as an academic subject at Harbel College.

Dopoe quoted Dr. Somah as having said, “We see the teaching of the Bassa language as a key step to the survival of the language’s written forms, the culture and civilization of the people.” How many times has not this newspaper, Daily Observer, complained of the failure of many Liberian families to teach their children the indigenous languages, unlike the Mandingo and Fula peoples?

For reasons no one can understand, so many Liberian families DO NOT TEACH THEIR CHILDREN THEIR LANGUAGES, BE IT KPELLE, GBANDI, LORMA, KISSI, KRU OR WHATEVER. We can never understand why. This newspaper has repeatedly warned that language is the bearer, the custodian of culture. If the children do not know their languages, they will not know their culture.

And what is a people without their culture? Can’t we see how the English, the French, the Germans, the Chinese and all the other progressive linguistic groups have instilled and preserved their languages and cultures in their children and peoples? What in the world is wrong with us?

We hope our readers have by now understood why we had to say so much about Momolu Massaquoi and his family. It is about language and patriotism, nothing else!

The second and last point we wish to make in this Editorial: It is about French. Liberians have learnt from elementary school how Liberia is bounded: We are situated between Guinea, La Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone.

Two of these countries are Francophone. Why have we not made it a point to teach our children French from kindergarten to university? Do we want our children to be strangers to their neighbors and relatives in Guinea and La Cote d’Ivoire? So many Liberians live in Europe and many of us frequently visit there. We have seen and continue to see that most Europeans speak fluent English and French, in addition to their native tongues.

This is true among even the Scandanavian (Danish, Swedish and Norweigian). Why aren’t Liberians fluent in French, in addition to English? We call on the entire government of President George Manneh Weah to MANDATE the Ministry of Education to introduce some Liberian languages and reinforce French into the Liberian school curricula.

The time has come for ALL Liberians to become fluent in French, so that we may better be able to communicate with not only our neighbors but even our many relatives from Guinea and La Cote d’Ivoire.

It is about time, is it not?

3 COMMENTS

  1. Indeed, Daily Observer, this piece is insightful and instructive. On reflection, regardless of where I reside on earth, the Kru language reminds of culture, county, and country – roots which keep me steady though in continual motion.

  2. Liberian students can barely write or speak standard English which is our national language so wouldn’t it be unrealistic to expect them to learn these other languages, right now? Maybe in a couple of years when the school system is stabilized, perhaps. It’s easy for us to sit in our comfortable homes around the world and have these ideas but will you go back to Liberia to teach? I bet you won’t. You expect other people to do it, and that’s the problem with all these wonderful ideas. I have not heard of a single Liberian peace corp. Have you?

  3. The Bassa Language class taught at grand bassa community college is a success. Right way to go because we did come home to teach, start the program and it is working..

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