Folk wisdom is rarely expressed in the same phrases across borders in Africa. But this one is: “the ability to speak English is not a mark of intelligence.”

I have witnessed it in rampant use in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and quite a few other Anglophone countries too. Someone even wrote a whole thesis on the subject.

It is a rare user of this truism who deploys it without an air of philosophical profundity, complete with a discussion about “mental decolonisation”.

Whether or not verbal fluency in a language is a mark of intelligence is actually a tired debate.

The ability to pick up languages is one of several “components”, and thereby partial measures, of intelligence (the belief that dolphins are smarter than salmon but dumber than humans is itself a reflection of this notion).

There are supposedly several other components, making intelligence an already murky notion murkier still.  It isn’t really all that interesting.

What is certainly interesting is the sociological observation that in post-colonial societies, ability to master the language of the coloniser has continued to serve as a marker of eligibility to replace the coloniser, and the affectations that ensue point not to intelligence but to fraud. That is to say, a pretence to knowledge using bombastic colonial languages has long been a mode of acquiring power by the manifestly incompetent.

The question therefore of whether fluency in any colonial language should be used as a heuristic to measure professional competence is quite important. Such heuristics do not have to be overt to serve as potent tools of discrimination, distraction and eventually deprivation.

This topic is too big for a short blogpost however, so I would focus on one small, but hugely important, dimension: functional literacy. And I would ask the innocent question: “can professional competence be possible without functional literacy”?

My provocative position is that functional literacy is a critical part of professional competence in any modern society and that some elite language is required to create the link.

When Asante began to modernise in the late 18th century, it “imported” a good number of Arabic and Hausa scribes from Gonja, Dagbon, Gao, Mossi and elsewhere skilled in producing records, tabulations, chronologies, chronicles and inscriptions of enchantment (i.e. “practical scripture”). These scribes were called “Moors” by the early Europeans, who detested their hold over the Asante aristocratic elite.

The Asantes maintained two literacy systems: one based on Arabic-Hausa inscriptions and the other based on cowries and goldweights, which we may call “pebbles” for simplicity.

As late as the 1820s, the royal treasury was still accounting for war booty, public debt and royal largess using pebble records and accounting. But as the demands of statecraft and trade proved overwhelming, inscriptions began to dominate, and the Asante state started to defer more and more to scribes who subscribed to a common pattern of inscription.

Having a common elite language to manage correspondence with foreign powers, record public expenditures and account for the royal fiscus is a simple matter of practical wisdom: it is efficient. Language learning takes time and interpretations come with cost. Similar questions faced equally powerful and storied states such as the Gonja and Dagbon, and they invariably found similar answers: Arabic-Hausa, an Elite lingua franca.

The Europeans, whose colonial residue are now the subject of our protest, had to endure similar choices too. For centuries literacy had to be expressed in Latin until they could replicate and exceed their intellectual productivity in their various vernaculars. That is why Newton’s Principia (in which his laws of gravity are best explained) had to be in Latin, yet a century later Adam Smith could present his Wealth of Nations in English (but still not in Scots, his native tongue.)

The question before us therefore is whether the demands of the modern Ghanaian state, public and private, in 2019 can be met without some kind of common elite language, and whether functionaries of the elite cohort, whether in government or business, can be truly effective and productive without command over and proficiency in that elite language.

After some of the testimony Ghanaians have witnessed at the Ayawaso West Wuogon (AWW) commission, how confident can Ghanaians be about the capacity of some of the officers of the national security apparatus to produce sound situation reports, design surveillance systems and write and comply with complex standard operating procedures?

Of course, a person doesn’t have to do these things in English, but they still need to use some language that other elite readers and collaborators can follow and rely upon. It may well be Ga, Swahili, Hausa or Twi, but a language it has to be.

Are high functionaries of official society, whether in the worlds of business or government, training or equipping themselves in Twi, Ga or Dagbani to the point where they can design protocols and instructions in any of those languages to prevent covert missions from becoming the shambles witnessed in AWW? What about ordnance logistics systems? Software specifications for risk analysis? Do we have functionaries equipped in Dagbani to produce them?

And beyond the security sector, what about forex rules for the banks? Monetary policy justifications that banks actually believe? Court rulings that address all salient facts in a complex case leaving litigants convinced of the justice served? Blueprints for public inoculation campaigns? Land planning diagrams? These are but a few of the products of functional literacy, and they are expressed in language.

So unless we have more folks acquiring a high degree of capacity in Ewe and Kusasi to produce these artifacts of modernity than we do in English, then it seems very obvious that functional literacy needs to be measured in English, for purely quantitative reasons.

Ghanaian elites CLAIM that they are training in English, so we expect that they SHOULD BE LITERATE in English. Alternatively we can adopt another Elite language and demand high standards of literacy in that language. Maybe, a part of the reason they keep flailing at what they do is because they are actually not literate enough, in which case more literacy is needed, in whichever common elite language they train in.

It is not possible to be a good doctor if you cannot take down medical history clearly and accurately so that another physician can rely on it. A lawyer who cannot write a persuasive and comprehensive brief is a useless lawyer. And an engineer that cannot put together a lucid project design document is not worth their certification.

In the same vein, a legislator must be able to digest reports from ministries over which she has oversight, and the head of a regulatory agency needs skills to assess a dossier from a technical committee recommending rejection of a new product.

All of these responsibilities are measurable by effective use of language in issuing instructions, providing guidance, rebutting arguments and discerning flaws in causal reasoning in project design.

In short, professional competence DOES require fluency in the society’s chosen language for functional literacy.