The word of the day is summer. I miss summer. The season when the world seemed to come out from hiding and everything sat a little higher, for a little longer: the sun in the sky, the ice cream scoops on breaded cones, jeans shorts on exposed thighs. For me, summer was characterized by music festivals, spur-of-the-moment travels, pool parties, picnics and garden dates.
Through one of the math and science camps that the University of Michigan hosts every year, I also had my first taste of summer counselor life — an extraordinary experience, if not for the long hours and terrible pay. Still, as someone who’s shared my own stories under the comfort of wooly duvets and wooden summer bunkers, I could not wait to extend the space to the kids as well. On the first night of camp, they introduced themselves over the crackle of the campfire. I listened to their stories of where they came from — vivid descriptions of Latin America, Southeast Asia, Europe, Australia … Ohio, which left me bright-eyed and eager to learn more.
While listening to these stories — brimming with color, breadth and fullness — I noticed an interesting pattern in the conversation of my campers. For one, I quickly found them falling back on their first language. They would begin with the briefest question — “Wait, where are you from, again?” In response, I would hear a gasp, followed by a “No way, me too,” and, before long, they became engulfed in a whole other language and, effectively, a whole other world. Their conversations were colored with the same vividness of the stories they told. Their conversations were saturated with color, and its vibrance provided them a greater sense of solace. I fell in love with that color. From their gleaming smiles and giddy nods, I could immediately tell how freeing it was to speak their language with their people, and strip the level of formality English tends to have.
As I bore witness to these conversations, so rooted in specific languages and specific contexts, I could not help but feel an intense joy for them. I watched as they giggled harmoniously at jokes only they could tell because of contexts only they could understand. And even when I attempted to translate it into English, a language often limited in expressing humor and emotion, I quickly realized that the zest was simply in their respective languages. It allowed them to be who they were and say what they wanted, without any fear of judgment for their difference.
As my admiration for their collectiveness rose and settled in my heart, it was unexpectedly interrupted by another emotion — a feeling that too began in my throat and reverberated in my chest. A feeling of profound shame.
Shame. A shame in my own inability to speak as fluently as they did. A shame in my incapability to communicate beyond what formal education had imposed on me. A shame for not being able to carry my language as authentically as they did theirs.
It’s interesting. I often prided myself in saying I could at least understand my native language, Akan Kasa or Twi (pronounced chwee). I could watch local movies from Ghallywood (Ghana’s very local version of Hollywood), listen to iconic Highlife songs littered with Twi words and phrases, and even read stories in the language (albeit with much effort). But whenever I actually attempted to speak, to respond to my parents in the language they instructed me in, I often stumbled. When I opened my mouth to speak, I found nothing more than a mouth left ajar and unspoken words. These quickly became frustrating moments, where I often knew what I wanted to say, but never how to say it — an indescribable block lodging itself in the back of my throat, stubbornly refusing to fade away.
Observing the children speak their language so effortlessly became a reminder — and then a reprimand — for my inability to speak with the same ease. What was so different about their upbringing that left them bilingual and me bitter? Why could I not connect with my people as they did with theirs? These reflections were difficult to have, seeing myself as merely a listener of my language — a bystander — and not the active participant I had hoped to be.
In asking these questions, my mind drew even further back to my childhood — a journey that unraveled in countries I was not native to but places I grew to call home. I thought of conversations in my native language, used by my parents to subtly indicate that the conversation no longer warranted my attention. I thought about how I grew up, perpetually on the receiving end of my language (hence my ability to understand) but rarely on its offering end (hence my inability to speak).
My parent’s push to have me speak good English briefly crossed my mind too, enrolling me in schools and filling our home with books, which expanded my imagination beyond measure. But, with this imported vocabulary, I slowly shifted my reliance onto English. I stopped dreaming in my own language, and only saw my experiences through English’s all-imposing tint.
Growing up briefly in Ghana, an English-speaking country surrounded by French-speaking neighbors, taught me to prioritize speaking French over my own language. I thought about the years I spent in French classrooms, French embassies and Alliances Françaises, wondering why there was never a push to learn my own language in the same way.
These thoughts then extended to my schools, where there was an even stronger reserve towards local languages. As a child, this had a subconscious impact on my perception of language itself: English was reserved for academic settings, where one aimed to appear learned, while my native language was relegated to the recesses of my mind. To be considered literate, and therefore valued, quickly became a condition that was limited to reading and writing English (and only English).
“You’re an African, you don’t owe anyone good English,” reprimanded a Tiktok I stumbled upon this summer. And while I agree that even the whole notion of “good English” feels like a compliment-laced-snark, I also found myself rebutting. Of course, I speak “good English” — in many ways, it’s the only language I’ve ever known. In many ways, the only language that escaped my lips was a foreign one, refined by years of British education and international schools. In many ways, the only thing I can confidently present is a tongue that differs from my mother’s or her mother’s.
As I delved into these questions and allowed a wave of emotions to surface and subside, a resolution arrived. I argue to myself that my language was never too late to learn and that understanding it was an achievement worth celebrating. Yes, it is ironic how I became more fluent in French, another colonizing language to grace my lips, than in my own native tongue. Yes, it’s a little disappointing that I spent more years learning English, composing essays and delving into poetry, but never once stepping foot in an Akan Twi class.
Undoubtedly, there’s a certain privilege in this journey, which has broadened my global opportunities and connected me with a wider array of people to engage with and learn from (or at least, that’s what I consoled myself with while grappling with this internal conflict). Deep down, however, I will always wish I could extend that fluency to my own language, tapping into that sense of home it provided for others.
So for now, I’ll even leave my summer reminiscing at just that. Perhaps pondering and reflecting forms my first step toward reconciling who I am and who I want to be. Perhaps the next time I see my campers, I will have more of my own stories in my own language to share with them. Perhaps by unearthing these intricate layers of my linguistic identity, my shame will turn over pride, even as summer turns over to fall.
MiC Columnist Ayeyi Asamoah-Manu can be reached at email@example.com.