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Thinking in English: Am I talking to you?

Posted by paa.kwesi on Tue, 05/01/2007 - 22:32

Whenever I do write a public article like this, the struggle is to try to speak correctly to the audience. The fact that the language is English does not really help, because it suggests that the audience is the English-speaking community, while in reality it is mostly unwise to define your audience too broadly. You end up speaking to everyone in general but no-one in particular.

In general, I assume that I'm talking to Africans--born in and raised in an African country, with a somewhat above-the-majority-class background(otherwise you probably wouldn't be reading this right now). You attended a good public school or a private school and by no means could the majority of those around you afford the exposure you had. Especially for the Ghanaians, you grew up with a distinctly "I'm-too-good-for-this-place" type of mentality (which you're trying to rid yourself of hence your reading this) and are typically more comfortable being spoken to in English than not. Almost certainly you have entertained the thought, either personally or suggested by the company you keep, of running the affairs of your country in some publicly visible capacity ( to say it humbly :) ). If you live outside Africa at the moment, you're the kind of person who is the local authority on all things African. If you live inside Africa, you're an authority on citing non-African examples for every point about societal progress that you have to make. I could go on, but you get the drift...

It is important to keep this in mind as you read these ramblings because the points I make are not applicable to everyone who can read English. Neither are they applicable to those who, say were born in Holland to African parents--their problems are different.

Sometimes it is funny when you suddenly realize this audience mismatch--it explains a lot of misunderstanding. Indeed, until I personally appreciated this point about audiences, it was easy to get offended at things not written with me as the primary reader. The BBC, CFI, New York Times, CNN, etc, all do not write for me (so please stop sending me those articles that you're righteously outraged by--certainly pass them on if you wish to make a cultural comparison, but do not if you wish to make an absolute statement about their validity or otherwise :)) Seen that way, it is almost comical to see those who do not pay UK taxes fume about what the BBC has or has not paid to be said. And if you want more proof that audience does matter, listen to yourself as you speak with your outer circle of friends and as you speak with your close family.

Ideally, there would be a different language for each audience to avoid the collateral damage of being heard by those you are not speaking to. If you're multilingual, you surely appreciate the utility of being able to switch languages as your audience changes. But until I can convince all ye to learn to read some form of local language, we're stuck with English. Enjoy...

Soundtrack: Hoobale, from K'Naan, Somalia/Canada (Lyrics at