Language as both an opportunity and a barrier to development.

1 Nov

Prior to departing for Nigeria, I distinctly remember people not understanding when I told them I was coming here. “Why?” “Why would you ever want to go there?” and “Huh?” were typical questions among other signs of shock. Many of these people I told were Nigerians, and they didn’t seem to understand any better. Furthermore, when I explained that my principal goal here was to learn Yoruba language and culture to the highest level of proficiency, their surprise and confusion only escalated. Although I have always been sure of my goals and my reasons for coming, from time to time I question what exactly it is I am doing here, what I hope to do with a full understanding and competency in Yoruba in the future, and the underlying reasons I care about this program. I know that everyone engages in this type of interpersonal exploration from time to time. On Wednesday of this past week, I had several profound revelations that completely solidified answers to each of the questions I have asked myself.

I met a man named Dr. Adegbola who owns a company working to develop technology related to African languages. He is perhaps one of the most interesting people I have met since I arrived and had a lot of knowledge and insight relating to the importance of indigenous languages. One of the biggest reasons to support indigenous languages is that people learn and comprehend best in their mother tongue. For example, rapidly growing and developing countries such as China, Japan, and Taiwan all teach science and technology related classes in their indigenous languages. Nigeria, on the contrary, teaches these courses in English, as it is the official language of the country (an attempt by the British to unify several very different tribes all with distinct languages). If you refer to the United Nations’ Human Development Index, countries that use mother tongues to teach science/technology based courses score significantly higher than countries that use a second language. Due to the fact that Nigeria falls under the latter, it regarded “behind” China, Japan, etc. in development, despite the fact that Nigeria’s economy has a lot of potential (it is the 17th fastest growing in the world).

Nigeria’s educational system actively tries to devalue indigenous languages-after primary school, students are not allowed to speak “vernacular,” or their indigenous languages at school. Mother tongues are considered as “poor grammar” and “slang.” Nigeria’s university system operates in English only. The fact that Nigeria’s educational system (especially higher education) doesn’t highly regard languages has profound implications, as it sets the stage for an astronomical paradox in Nigerian society: the theory and application of technology are completely separate. Nigeria has a large number of highly educated individuals in nearly every discipline under the sun (the theory side). The paradox however, lies in the application. For technology to be effective, theory and application must be one. In Nigeria, most of society still speaks indigenous languages, or at least indigenous tongues are what people understand, learn, and think in best. An example of this paradox is ATM machines. All ATM machines only operate in English here. Many men and women who make a living selling goods at markets aren’t always well-versed in the English language or computers, as many of us Westerners are and take for granted. Therefore, if they want to make a bank transaction, they either have to bring someone to the ATM with them (and compromise their pin number, an especially risky activity in Nigeria), or go to the bank and wait in notoriously long lines. Dr. Adegbola’s company is working with Microsoft (who has a monopoly on ATM software in Nigeria) to develop interfaces in Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo, Nigeria’s three most common tribal languages. This development brings the application to the same playing field as the theory, as all of these native speakers making a living at the market will now be able to use ATM machines, alleviating the horrendously long wait times at Nigerian banks.

Another paradox lies in the academic and societal branches of language. Unfortunately, Nigeria has relatively low literacy rates today (68% according to the CIA World Fact Book), in part due to lack of infrastructure/funding for a solid country-wide educational system, as well as the fact that many indigenous languages here have strong roots in oral tradition. Therefore, an individual may be highly educated in an indigenous language, but if they cannot write it down they are considered illiterate, even though oral tradition is as highly regarded here as the western world regards written literature. Due to the level of literacy rates as well as what I mentioned above about learning pace with indigenous languages, the English language really only has a strong academic branch here. The societal branch is convoluted and blurred by both the youth, who are more focused on the latest European and American fashions and mobile phones than real aspects of intelligence relating to the language (many disillusioned by the misconception that everyone in America runs around like 50-cent and Snoop Dogg), and the elders who still interpret and understand everything best in their mother tongues. How is a language supposed to be 100% effective without being firmly rooted in society? Yes, english is the official language of Nigeria, and most Nigerians I have met are bi or trilingual, however it is not difficult to see that English is considered superior to the other languages. Language is a dynamic entity, as it has every characteristic that a living organism has. If language is so capable of adapting and changing, and indigenous languages are clearly better mediums of learning, then why is it compulsory in Nigeria to turn away from indigenous languages? Other countries that have embraced indigenous languages have obviously experienced more rapid growth and development, so why doesn’t Nigeria fall into this category?

I have heard many people in Nigeria talk about how they are sick of hearing Africa and Nigeria constantly referred to as underdeveloped, lagging behind, sub-par, etc. These derogatory terms, unfortunately and paradoxically, just push people away from their own cultures, traditions, and languages. They simply cause embarrassment and resentment towards people’s’ own cultures. Language, culture, and identity cannot be separated from one another. If one is lost (whether it be intentionally or accidentally), you inadvertently lose all three. For example, I have observed that most of the youth here are extremely preoccupied with learning English language and culture. They think that if they are well versed in western culture, it will improve their chances of being able to move to America or Great Britain (the life dream of many people here). Learning English is also the only option for Nigerians who want to study at a university or learn anything about science and technology. The paradox here is that although those learning English think they are bettering themselves and their country (they are to some extent), they are actually digging themselves into a deeper hole as there is no firm societal root in the language here. I do not wish to say that it is bad for Nigerians to learn English, but when it is ultimately sought after to replace indigenous languages and cultures (often the case here), Nigerians have then shortchanged themselves of their best portal to learn in-their indigenous language, while simultaneously sacrificing part of their identity.

Consequentially, there is a small group of scholars in Nigeria who consider themselves “language activists”-advocates for indigenous language acquisition and support. One of these language activists is Professor Kolawole Owolabi, one of the directors of my program. Language activism is a bottom-up approach for international development. I completely agree with the notion that in underdeveloped and developing countries (I reluctantly use these words here), change needs to come from within: from the bottom-up. Outside sources coming in and taking control of a conflict, corruption, or poverty-stricken area rarely prove completely effective or worth it in the long run (unless someone in the equation gets completely cheated or short-changed). Essentially, top-down transformation is colonialism and I think that Nigeria is a prime example of this-only 50 years ago did it gain its independence from the British. Today, it is still ruled by a British-style, top-down government that is essentially completely ineffective and notoriously corrupt. I’m not trying got sound like an over-privileged white college student from a liberal university in America who goes to Africa and think he can easily solve all of the problems, because I certainly am not trying to be. What I do claim is my opinion, and that is that indigenous languages and cultures should be regarded highly and respected, especially by those whom it is their heritage. Indigenous languages are the most effective ways of communicating and learning, as they are deeply ingrained in people’s blood and hearts, and have been so for generations. In a situation like Nigeria, the decreasing regard for indigenous languages and cultures is obviously holding the country back from its massive potential (economy, population, investment potential, abundant natural resources, etc.).

So where do I fit in all of this? How does this help me answer the question, “What am I doing here?” If you followed me around for a day here, it would not be hard to figure out. I have now become completely desensitized to the complete shock, awe, and amazement experienced by nearly every Yoruba speaker I have met here when they hear me speak for the first time. It is extremely rare for a white American to come to Nigeria for the sole purpose of learning Yoruba language and culture.

Typical swarming scenario

Every time I get in a danfo, buy something at the market, say hello to someone on the street, or interact with students at school, people want to converse with me at length about what I am doing here (and to see if I can actually speak their language). My group of five students from America has been in newspapers and on several TV interviews in Ibadan, and this has made us quite popular. It seems that everywhere I go in this city of five million people, someone is shouting “Kayode! Kayode!” because they saw me on TV or in the paper. Two weeks ago, I got in a danfo in a neighborhood called Moniya, about 20 minutes away from where I live. Every single one of the nine people inside the van knew who I was and had seem the TV interview. I thought it was very strange when we first arrived that everyone was so excited to publicize us, put us on TV, put us in the papers, etc.

The TV interview that made us famous

Now, however, it makes sense to me. The fact that foreigners are taking an active and serious interest in a traditional language and culture here is a huge source of inspiration, in addition to shock and awe. It helps to show people that their native languages are important, and it is not as if the entire world completely disregards them. In conclusion, after hearing Dr. Adegbola’s lecture last week, something clicked and everything seemed to fall into place. I did my best to describe this epiphany above. Perhaps a more concise way to put it is that I have become a language activist, fighting for the importance of an indigenous language in a country where I am a complete minority in every sense of the word.


6 Responses to “Language as both an opportunity and a barrier to development.”

  1. Lisa Durocher November 1, 2010 at 11:37 PM #

    Wow! Very interesting, educational, and thought provoking.

    Thanks Kevin!

  2. Karen Born November 2, 2010 at 5:50 PM #

    Well said, Kevin! You have done a fantastic job in describing your epiphany. You have opened my eyes to a cause in a way that really expanded my thinking. Some of us can be guilty of living in our own little worlds sometimes, caught up in our own daily agendas, not realizing what life is like elsewhere. I would never expect that it would be required to drop a native language and speak english. Indigenous languages should be respected and thoroughly supported, especially while living in their native country speaking their native tongue. It should be their right.

    I loved reading about how the advocates are making a difference as with the ATM type machine. It seems to me that you are very well respected there, and there is an appreciation shown towards you for not only the effort you are putting into becoming proficient in speaking their language, but also that your presence and purpose there is helping to rebuild some pride and integrity in their own language and culture. In many ways, it appears that you may be instilling hope as well! YOU are also making a difference!

    P.S. It has to be a bit surreal to be so immediately recognizable by so many people from all over, calling out your name! What an experience!

  3. Adrienne Maiers November 3, 2010 at 8:25 PM #

    Hey Kevin,

    I will be going to Nigeria in January and am very impressed with both Cara and your blogs and would like to ask you a few questions:
    1) Do you have a pc or a mac? Will a mac work?
    2) What kind of camera are you using for you videos?

    Thanks for your blog! Its inspiring.

    • irinajoyinbo November 4, 2010 at 9:01 AM #

      Hi Adrienne!

      I read your facebook message and this, I’ve been meaning to get back to you sorry for the delay. So cool to hear about what you’ll be doing here in January! We will have to meet up sometime! I use a mac, macs work great but one issue we all have been having is with power surges/outages. If I were you, I would bring a few surge protectors along that can work at 240V…I didn’t bring any and a power surge fried my external hard drive and I lost all of my music, photos, backed up files, etc… I use a MacBook pro and everything works fine. Sometimes the internet is too slow/unreliable to download security updates but I’ve experienced no problems. It might not be a bad idea to bring an extra charger along because mac products are impossible to find here and the power surges make it easy to fry chargers. I’ve just been using the camera I take photos with to make videos-a Cannon PowerShotSD 3500 IS. I’ll write you a longer message on facebook or something soon. Thanks for getting in touch with us!


  4. Tomi November 30, 2010 at 10:59 AM #

    Hi Kevin,

    Im loathe to disagree with your very well written article but I have a few points Im trying to sort out in my mind.
    The question of which language should be taught indigenously is one. Nigeria is a multicultural and multiethnic group(over 200) and the decisions of what ethnic gtoups/languages are major and which are minor have created more problems than can be solved.
    The countries you cite as examples typically have one major ethnic group and tongue.(I stand to be corrected)
    Im a product of an intertribal marriage- Yoruba and a tribe from the Niger delta(ND)! And I know that the ND tribe would rather be taught in their own language than learn in a language deemed as major.
    Will they learn in a mother tongue (for the smaller tribes)indigenous to a few million with no applicability outside their borders?
    Who will do the teaching? Many Nigerians ( like you pointed out) have no deep understanding of their language, they cant even speak it. While your suggestions are laudable it would take raising a new generation to bring about what you suggest and maybe a more homogenous country, one with one language and culture!

  5. Laolu November 30, 2010 at 8:56 PM #

    You have spoken a thing of which I have meditated on for so long. I have also studied and seen that the countries that teach science in their native tongue are more advanced than those who don’t. I hope that eventually this will become a reality in Nigeria. I hereby proclaim myself a language activist too! Well done!

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