A while ago, I was announced as the winner of a prestigious international prize for mother tongue literature, the first African to be so honoured. It was a welcome surprise but let me not dwell on my feelings about that here. Over the last couple of weeks, I have thought about what it means both for me and for the work I have been doing for the better part of the last two decades in language and literature. Responding to interview questions by journalists has given me a good a chance as any to think through my motivations and my frustrations as I try very hard to shape a future that seems totally out of my control.
Here are the facts: minority languages worldwide are in danger of extinction. But of even more concern to me as an African and a Nigerian, many more languages in my country and on the continent than can be accounted for because of our poor record keeping and governmental nonchalance are dying under our noses. Not only is nothing being done about it, people who are doing things are scoffed at at worst or mildly tolerated at best, given an ostensibly sympathetic ear on the one hand, and on the other, gently reminded of the inevitability of the “global village” English language juggernaut that will grind everything to a pulp. Today, we do not know exactly how many people speak any of Nigeria’s languages, as the information is never asked on census documents anymore. Because of this, the government of the country is unable to correctly make plans to protect or promote them even if it wants to.
In any case, sadly, it doesn’t even want to. Less than two years ago, Nigerian languages were dropped from the school curriculum. And just a few weeks ago, French was declared the new second language (beside English) which school children from elementary to tertiary will be compelled to learn. I have made a case in many places (also during my @WeTheHumanities curation), and on my blog, why I find this kind of attitude disturbing, retrogressive and totally counterproductive to not just socioeconomic development, but also to the cultural and linguistic ecosystem that keeps the continent unique and fertile. Local language literature is no longer being produced in Nigeria today, and there are few prizes on the continent that reward literature in an African language. One of the problems facing the publishing industry is not just the absence of an audience, but also an absence of will. In any case, there haven’t been a lot of technological advancements focused on African language use in literature, leading to poor and uneven orthography and a thoroughly fallen standard of writing.
The responses (and criticisms) I’ve always got point to the universality and inevitability of English (and French, and Mandarin, and any other foreign language but a local one), and their success in the world as a cultural vehicle, as the reason why we shouldn’t bother with our own languages since that is merely a quixotic adventure with no economic and pragmatic importance. As I shared with the audience during my curation week at We The Humanities, my experience teaching Yorùbá to eager and willing students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, who paid good money to acquire a piece of knowledge that others in Nigeria take for granted, has convinced me otherwise – not just of the viability of the language and its cultural value but also of an otherwise sad reality that over many generations from now, Yorùbá students may have to travel to America to acquire the knowledge of the language. In any case, plenty of linguistics research has shown us that children learn better in their mother tongue. Good luck getting those arguing the counterpoint to be willing to examine a fact that denies them their aspiration to have their children learn from birth to the grave in English, a language seen as the ONLY means of advancement in today’s world. Why is that anyway? It’s not an African problem alone, it seems. One of my favourite conversations during my last curation was about examining how academic publication became totally monolingual. I storified it here. Speaking to a friend from Wales many months after then also confirmed to me that the agony of minority languages suffering in the face of the English onslaught is real, but not unameliorable.
Let me say though: being a linguist means that I love languages equally and enjoy working with them. My work involves thinking of ways to help people speak and use language and use it effectively. But more importantly, it means loving the idea of people using more languages and not less, the same way a nutritionist will look at a myriad of different food items or a horticulturist at different flowers and plants as necessary for a more beautiful, more exciting, world. I speak a few languages myself and I am constantly reminded of the privilege that comes with such multiplicity of access in different environments to a diverse way of looking at the world. Transporting Yorùbá across the seas into the minds of my students at SIUE was one validation for the power of cultural and linguistic contact to offer fruitful pollination of ideas. But so was teaching my high school students of English in Lagos that what I’m teaching them in English is less important than the knowledge of their own language which they can only get from their parents and grandparents now that they’re alive.
Two days ago, we launched YorubaName.com, a (soon to be multimedia) crowdsourced dictionary of names which started from my undergraduate thesis from 2005. The site was built from the ground up through the help of donations by friends and family to the Indiegogo fundraising drive we ran in January 2015. Before then, we had released a free Yorùbá tone-marking software to solve a problem many have faced who tried to write in Yorùbá with current keyboards without much success. Making a language usable on the internet, in 2016, is surely one of the ways to make it attractive to young people on whose shoulder the onus will fall to carry the language into the next generation. It was for that reason that I also helped to make Twitter available in Yorùbá.
I am proud to work on these ideas because even if they can only help make one minority language more viable, it would have been worth the effort. The language is Yorùbá in this case because it’s one that I speak with confidence and competence. But it’s not all I care about nor are these projects the only interventions needed to turn things around and rejuvenate a society handicapped by a lack of imagination. Having access to the tools of technology and the competence to make a difference gives me an advantage and an incentive. Being lucky enough to live in this age and to have a voice and validation is an added responsibility. But I am just one person. And since I can’t do everything, it is my hope that this access and capability allows me to at least inspire others to do the same, by words, work, and actions. I’m currently working on a translation of a number of African short stories written in English into Yorùbá though I haven't found publishers yet. There are very few published works of that nature written in 2016. The viability of all languages gives us a more complete, more colourful, and more nuanced portrayal and perception of the world, and I sometimes wish that more people believed that.