Kola Tubosun and the Yorùbá language (Nigeria)


Special Prize Ostana 2016


«No one I know is doing such incredible, ground-breaking things to ensure that Yoruba, an indigenous Nigerian language, continues to enjoy dignity. There are very few people doing such great work with minority languages in Nigeria but I think an award like this one will boost and create interest in this important area.» Lọlá Shoneyin

Kola is at the forefront of bringing his native language, Yorùbá, into more prominence in this web era where English and other foreign languages strive to keep local languages under. He successfully led a protest get the Twitter platform translated into Yorùbá, he has taught Yorùbá at Southern Illinois University as a Fulbright Scholar, and has also taught English to Nigerian high school children at Whitesands School.

His YorubaName.com is an online intervention to document all Yorùbá names in a web multimedia format. He has also talked about creating an online dictionary of Yorùbá (and other Nigerian, and African) words. In 2012, he founded the Tweet Yorùbá Movement which organises a one-day TweetYorùbá event on twitter where everyone tweets in Yorùbá all day long. Kola currently works as a Speech Linguistic Project Manager, a temporary role, at Google Nigeria where he has also contributed to Yorùbá culture by facilitating the successful rectification of the mistranslations of Èṣu as Satan on the Google Translate platforms.

Kola has translated a number of prominent Nigerian writers and writings into Yorùbá from other languages, and has also translated a couple of Yorùbá texts into English. He also writes for his private blog KTravula.com through which he was nominated, in 2015, for the CNN/Multichoice African Journalists Awards for a piece he wrote on the enduring cultural value of the Olúmọ Rock in Abeokuta, Nigeria. For his work in language and technology, he has twice been named one of the Top 100 Nigerian Most Innovative Persons in Technology.


Conversation with Kola Tubosun.

The “Ostana Scritture in Lingua Madre” international award stands out clearly from the scene of cultural events dedicated to the linguistic minorities in Italy and in the world as focuses on the authors who through their works and their initiatives are contributing to the protection of the minority language they represent.

We meet Kola Tubosun, a linguist, teacher and writer, whose professional experience span work as an editor, blogger, translator, and language teacher at different levels of school education, has improved the protection of the Yoruba language.

Our mother tongue not only connects us to the land where we were born, but feeds us with the culture that gives us. Kola Tubosun, how have you learned Yoruba? Have you studied it at school?

Let me, first, thank you for the honour of presenting me with the award this year. It is gratifying to have one’s efforts rewarded.

To answer your question, Yorùbá, my native language, is something I’ve spoken since birth. I can’t say when I began to learn it, because everyone around me spoke it. I grew up in an environment where the competence in Yorùbá was treated with the same value as competence in English which we spoke at school.

I did also learn Yorùbá at school but only as a “second language” in primary and secondary schools. It was neither compulsory or favourably viewed by the teachers and students, so that wasn’t very helpful for many, but I took sufficient interest in it which has helped me greatly when I got out of the environment. This negative background was particularly one of the reasons why I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to change the attitude of the society to our local languages.

Is it still spoken in the area where you were born and from how many people (diffusion, differences in age, historical developments of recent years)?

Yes, Yorùbá is still spoken in Nigeria (and in Latin America because of the influence of the religions through slavery and the middle passage). It is also spoken in Togo, Ghana and other West African languages. However, in Nigeria today, the survival of the language is threatened because only grown people show sufficient competence and interest in it. Young people, either through disinterest or the influence of English and other government policies, no longer care about speaking well or using it in public. Hence the survival of the language for future generation has come into question. The internet age also has something to do with it, which is why much of my work as an adult has focused on improving the capability of the internet to deal with African language use online.

You write articles and poems in your native language, what is your approach to poetry?

I have written mostly in English, but I have translated works of poetry and prose into Yorùbá. I am currently working on a collection of translated short stories by Nigerian (and other African) writers into Yorùbá. Whenever I’ve tried to write poetry in Yorùbá, I have been subject to the same limitations as many people: the pervasive influence of English and the limited audience. There is also not a thriving publishing industry in Yorùbá to make writing in the language economically viable. I’m hoping that that changes, and I’m hoping that my work influences much of that change. If there is an audience, an industry will emerge. And when that happens, more work will get published. I must say though that reading poetry in Yorùbáis a thoroughly delightful experience whose beauty can never be successfully translated through the non-tonality of English.

Next to your profession of writer and poet, you have continued to be an activist of the Yoruba language: how do you feel that your work is protecting this language?

I’ve seen some changes. One of the problems I noticed while looking at the problem was the absence of easy-to-use free softwares online with which to type Yorùbá characters. Because this was a problem in my own writing life, I sought to create a solution for it. And through our YorubaName.com project, we created a free downloadable software for typing in Yorùbá and Igbo. This software, downloaded so far by hundreds of people, will help increase the Yorùbá content on the internet and help people express themselves better. We also hope to create guideline videos to teach people how to tone-mark properly. All of these have made me happy about the survival of the language online into the future, though many challenges remain.

You are the brain behind the TweetYoruba project currently trying to get Twitter translated into Yoruba, and YorubaName.com, which is an effort to document Yoruba (and other African) names online. You also run the travel blog KTravula.com . When do you felt the urgency to find a way to protect your language? (for me : why Twitter?)

The urgency has always been there, but I never cared about it for a long time because I’d assumed that there are more competent people out there in the world who can and who will do something. Then one day, as an adult, I realised that I was the person I had been waiting for all along. All the tools needed to make the changes we want are all around me, and all I have to do is to use them. So I stopped complaining and started working. So I can say that it built up over time, perhaps much earlier than I’d admit. But I remember being an undergraduate and being very interested in linguistics because of the way it unraveled the mysteries of language and showed me the many ways in which I can solve real problems by myself. It helped greatly that I also had a knowledge of computer and information technology. It was the combination of the two skills that gave me a push in the right direction.

The twitter experience came from my despair after having a conversation with some young Nigerians on twitter. It gave me a couple of sleepless nights and made me write a strong and angry blog post which you can find here. But I wasn’t satisfied so I decided to do something more. It then happened to be around the same time when Twitter was translating the platform into some world languages, and I decided to push to get Yorùbáin there as well. I narrated the experience here. But, why twitter, you ask? Well, it was a platform that has many Yorùbá speakers who choose instead to write in English. So why not? I realised that any language that cannot survive online would probably not make it into the next century.

How can the new communication vehicles can help minority languages?

I believe that languages will need to adapt to technology before they can survive. Now that we all use ATMs to get money, and we use our phones to get directions. If these devices can operate in our own languages, then more people will use it. As many languages that can be used with these devices are languages that young people will use, leading to their survival. I look forward to having my grandfather use an ATM in Yorùbá, or dictate to his car in Yorùbá. It probably won’t happen now since he’s 90 years old, but that’s my standard. In Nigeria today, there are few signboards in local languages. English has taken over almost everywhere. This is a shame. My intention is to make the next century better suited for local language survival through technology.

What’s the situation in Nigeria at the moment?

The situation in Nigeria is terrible. The National Policy on Education advices that children be taught in their native languages for the first three years of school. But this isn’t implemented anywhere. The law doesn’t compel private schools so the policy fails. Parents aren’t helping either, since they send their children to private schools where the languages aren’t used, and where their children are penalised for speaking their mother tongue. I experienced this myself growing up in the eighties.

In today’s Nigeria, parents rarely speak their languages to the children anymore, including parents living in Western countries. The children grow up learning only English and losing out on their mother tongue experience in the process. Many children now grow up monolingual and then have to pay huge amounts of money in America to learn Yorùbá because their parents didn’t succeed in passing the knowledge down.

I was in Wales a couple of weeks ago and I was shocked and delightfully surprised at the efforts being put in Welsh-medium education. There are many primary and high schools where the medium of instruction is Welsh, which is used to teach everything from sciences to the arts. It was a shock to my hosts when I told them that there is not one Yorùbá-medium school in Nigeria today. All our schools teach in English and most of them penalise students for speaking the mother tongue in the school premises. This is unacceptable. But that has been the case for so many years that it will take a radical intervention for things to change.

What other laws could the government produce to protect this language?

It will help if laws are passed and resources provided for major subjects to be taught in Nigeria’s local languages. The structures are there, but this is not being prioritised. In high schools, English language should merely be a subject and it shouldn’t be compulsory. Everything else should be taught in Nigeria’s languages. We will have brighter students and more resourcefulness as a result, as plenty research has shown. When students can learn Physics and Chemistry in their native language, they will acquire scientific education more naturally and organically, and we can unleash a potential currently being stifled by the artificial English barrier.

To protect languages, the government should also include language questions in census documents. We need to know how many languages remain in the country so we can know what to do to protect them. I have also been a firm believer in having the president of the country speak his mother tongue whenever he’s abroad so that people can understand the benefit of speaking one’s own language.

And finally, it the government is listening, I’d love to have them put in policies that prevent products from coming into Nigeria unless they have their manuals written in at least one Nigerian language. This will provide jobs to Nigerian translators and also put value in Nigerian languages in the international marketplace.

Is there any historical reference, a treaty or an agreement that respects minority languages in Nigeria?

None that I know of.

What steps have been taken for the protection of languages and what remains to be done both in Nigeria and in Africa in your opinion?

Much of the work that has been done to preserve Nigeria’s minority languages has been done by private individuals, foreign organisations, and foreign students in PhD and Masters programmes, sponsored by Endangered Language grants from Europe. Nigerian governments over the years haven’t cared enough to dedicate resources to this purpose, which is unfortunate. There was a research done in the 70s called the Ifẹ̀Six Year Primary Project, which proved that education in the mother tongue produces better result for educational outcomes. It was done by Professor Babátúndé Fáfúnwá. Sadly, the result of the study hasn’t been implemented till date.

African governments need to dedicate more resources to first discovering how many languages remain viable on the continent, and then even more to preserve, protect, and teach those languages. But more importantly, they need to teach in those languages for the benefit of the children. Some countries, like Tanzania and Ghana, have taken steps in this direction by making a local language the official medium of instruction in schools. More African countries need to follow suit.

How do you see today the future of the Yoruba language?

I have found reason to believe that things will get better, and some more reason to believe that they will get worse. But I’m choosing instead to be a force for the former. The responses I’ve got from people since we started being visibly active has been encouraging. There just might be more people left to get us into a good place. I look forward to having a revised Yorùbá bible, a Yorùbá translation of Shakespeare and Cervantes’ works, a translation of all contemporary novels by Nigerian writers in Yorùbá, among many others. It is a language that has survived many centuries. I’m ready for the challenge to get it to survive into many more in the future, including a capability to express and deal with scientific challenges. But none of these will happen without resources and support from private individuals, governmental and non-governmental bodies, and a number of Nigerians willing to dedicate time and effort to ensure the survival of the language.