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On African Languages and Literature: Lessons from Korea | Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún

On African Languages and Literature: Lessons from Korea | Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún

Kola Tubosun Agbowo Art African Art On African Languages and Literature: Lessons from Korea


Being the transcript of a talk delivered at Kyung Hee University, Korea, on January 25, 2018, to a group of literature students and professors


Thank you so much for having me. Annyeoung haseyo! I’m always very happy when I get a response when I say annyeoung haseyo other than good morning and that fits into my work because in Nigeria where I am from, most people prefer to just say ‘good morning’, ‘good morning’. You know, most young people of nowadays want to feel like they are English or that English language is more important than their own mother tongue. So I am very happy when I’m here and the response I get when I speak Korean or try to speak Korean is much better and much warmer than when I try to speak English. It tells me that there are people in the world, young and old, who care a lot about their language and respond positively to it than just English. So, kamsa hamnida.

My name is Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún. I am from a place called Ìbàdàn, that is where I was born, but I live in Lagos, Nigeria, today. It is my first time in Korea. I have been told that I speak fast so I am going to try to slow down so that everybody can understand what I am saying. It is my first time in Korea; it is my first time in Asia. It is my first time in pretty much everywhere else I have been since I have been here. First time we landed at Incheong, we’ve visited and came to Seoul, we went to Pyeonchang and I came back in Seoul and then we went to Busan and I’m back in Seoul again. Tomorrow I go to Incheong, then I’ll be out. I’ve had so much fun. I have enjoyed the country, the hospitality of the people. Thank you.

My work is in linguistics, language and also in literature. I will try to explain how all of them tie together and if you read the paper, you’ll probably have an idea of my work and the kind of thing I have done in the last couple of years even though I am a very young man, as you will find.

Nigeria is a place in West Africa. It has over 250 different ethnic groups and well over 500 languages. That always throws people off because that’s a huge number. What you need to know however that not all of these languages, are used and not all of them are in good health or good condition. Some of them are endangered. Some have died; some are alive but are not used as much and will eventually be extinct over time. This is due to a number of reasons. One of them is government policy, one of them is colonial policy which I discussed in the paper, and one of them is the current attitude by Nigerians and Africans generally to the idea of local language use in pretty much everywhere. So, this has affected education, politics, technology and pretty much everywhere else language is used. I was very happy, for instance, when I realized that Korean is a language that is supported by every part of the society and is used everywhere you go. Even though people try to learn English, it is to communicate in it. Korean is a language that actually matters. English is just so that you can communicate with other people when you meet them from different parts of the world.

In Nigeria, the opposite is the case. Over time people have adopted the perception that English is the only language that matters and that the local language is just a minor inconvenience. Of course there are few people in these languages who care enough about these languages to want to communicate in them, talk to their children in them and perform activities in them, but generally the attitude in Nigeria has been that because we have English, we try not to worry much about other languages.

Now I should explain why English came to play that kind of role in the country. Before the British came, we were just a bunch of small and big — sometimes big, sometimes small — different groups living together, around each other. Then the British colonial experience came and brought everybody together under one country — Nigeria. And because of that, because they wanted to be able to communicate with the whole country and be able to rule, they needed to enforce a uniform language policy. English came to represent this. I am sure you had the same experience with Japanese and other invaders that have ruled over you over time. The result of that is that we all had to learn English while going to school.

The British did something that was interesting since they were ruling through indirect rule. They still pretended to care about local languages because sometimes, in some communities, that was the only way they could reach the members of the community. They had translators that went to kings and made sure there was someone who could transmit important information to the people. Because of that they supported some kind of publishing industry that published in local languages. The bible was translated to Yorùbá and Igbo and other places for instance by the missionaries. There were also a number of smaller activities like that which at least gave some benefit to the local language. So the languages survived and thrived for over a couple of decades. However, since the British left, that part of the policy of colonialism, the part where the British supported a little bit of local language development even though they were doing it for their own good, was removed.

In the 40s and 50s, there were authors who published in Yorùbá, many who published in Igbo and Hausa and some other languages. My grandfather, who is 90 now, read a number of Yorùbá literature when he was young and there are a number of people who remember those novels. A famous writer is D.O Fágúnwà. He published in the 40s. Those kinds of books existed but over time, due to economic reasons and attitudes like I said, the publishing industry stopped publishing local language literature. They focused only on English. So we have the Sóyínkás, the Achebes, Amos Tutùọlá, Buchi Emecheta, Elechi Amadi and a number of other writers in English. Literature for Nigeria became defined by those who were published only by Nigerian writers of English.

Chinua Achebe said that his writing of English is indigenous. He tried to make the argument that he had been able to use English to transmit knowledge of his Igbo customs. There is a huge debate about whether that is efficient or successful, or whether that is a true manifestation of what is happening or a colonial brainwashing taking over because, at the end of the day, the language in which you are writing still somehow determines what you can put in the work you are putting out. The irony of that is evident especially in Chinua Achebe’s case: his book, his most famous work Things Fall Apart, has not been translated into his own local language: Igbo. It has been translated into over 50 languages but not Igbo. If you claim English is a Nigerian language like you did, are you saying English is the only Nigerian language which is a question I have been trying to grapple with.

It is possible that English has come to represent a form of Nigerian language because people have used it over time. The question is, how much of a Nigerian language is it to start with because when you present yourself outside of Nigeria as a speaker of English, people do not see you in that same way. They do not see you as a native speaker of English because you are not white, to start with, and the idea that you have spoken a language all your life does not seem to matter or make as much impact in that assessment as possible. The other is that at the expense of our local language, if all you have is that foreign language that you claim is yours, what happens to other languages? If it is a Nigerian language then there must be other languages that also support that ecosystem.

If Chinua Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart, exists in other languages and not in Igbo, then there is something fundamentally wrong, I believe, about that. The reason was that, before he died, he wanted to be the one to do it, from what I have been told. He did not value what everybody else had done to bring the work into Igbo because he felt it was not deep enough or that he had the most competence to do it. So, that’s that.

My work has been focused on technology but also sometimes on literature. The argument I make is that the endangerment of language comes in a number of ways. One of them is lack of means of publication, for instance, to put those work outside for people to read in those languages. Because economy had gone down in the 90s and because most people stopped publishing and the publishers gave up, there is no work in Igbo, Hausa, and Yorùbá in contemporary times that people have read or can read. It means that fewer people are able to read their language and language does not survive as much as it should into the next generation.

I am focusing on technology because I am a young person and young people of nowadays pay more attention to technology. We all have phones, televisions and computers. When you go on the internet, you realize — maybe not the same here because Korea is a big language that everybody speaks — but in Nigeria, everything online is in English. Everywhere you look, TV, CNN, etc. So, English has taken over in that way. Which means English does not have any problem. It is not going to fail. It is not going to go extinct. But the other languages in the places where these technological tools are used suffer as a result. Example of my grandfather that I mentioned — he is 93, can read in Yorùbá and write in Yorùbá because he was taught in the language when he was young. Yorùbá is a tone language. He can write with the tone marks. If you write to him, he will read what you’ve written and will understand it and write back to you in Yorùbá as well. But he cannot read and write in English, yet he has a mobile phone and in all mobile phones, the language is English. You can change to French, German, etc. but you cannot change to Yorùbá because people have not spent enough time creating products to fit the Yorùbá audience.

Yorùbá is spoken by about 30 million people within Nigeria and outside. I have noticed from the time I was in University, from using Microsoft word and seeing names underlined in red lines to say that these are not names that matter to noticing that most technological tools being created are created in big languages and not the African ones. Before, I said maybe it is because there aren’t enough people using these things, but Yorùbá has 30 million people and one day I was looking through my iPad to see Siri, the automatic artificial intelligence application that speaks to you when you click and talks back. Siri speaks in English and probably Korean too. I am not sure. But I was looking through to see what languages Siri exists in and there was Swedish. I googled how many people spoke Swedish. The results were 9 – 10 million people. There was Norwegian: 5 – 6 million, Danish: 4 – 5 million. In total, these three languages in the Nordic circle were spoken by 15 – 20 million people. Three languages! Yorùbá is spoken by 30 million and nobody has thought that this language deserves to have this kind of product.

So, there is an exclusion that is happening over time. Because of that my work has been to find a way to fill that gap, by advocacy first of all in my writing. I try to write in Yorùbá. It has been hard because we were not brought up speaking as much Yorùbá as English. I’ll address that later. But also because we have had to create these tools from the start as no one had done it before. We decided that — I’m a linguist, I was trained as a linguist—I’m going to use the skill I have to create opportunities for the Yorùbá language to better survive on the internet and, in doing so, hope that I encourage people who speak other languages in the country, who also feel the urgency that I feel that we are being left behind by speed and the growth of technology to be able to also create something. So most of the tools we are creating through technology, we are making open source. All the codes are on Github so that people can go there and be able to adapt the tools to fit their own language and to be able to help it survive.

So I was going to mention how we were raised when I was growing up in Ìbàdàn. Ìbàdàn is a smaller town than Lagos. My parents who were a little different from most modern parents of the time knew the importance of speaking Yorùbá in the house even though they knew that as soon as we went out most of our friends and colleagues spoke English or other languages. So it was harder to monitor a child when he was out of the house. In the private schools we went to, English was the medium of instruction. Sometimes you got punished if you spoke your own language in school; that is in a country where the language is spoken. It is like you’re speaking Korean now in Korea and you go to a school in Korea where the teacher says all of you must speak English while you’re on the school premises and if you ever speak a word of Korean, you’ll be punished.

That was what we went through and parents thought that was normal because they assumed that English is a language of education and economic empowerment and therefore to be able to learn it properly you have to deny yourself your tendency to speak your own language. Of course linguistic research has shown that that is a false and bullshit argument. To say that having competence in your own language will prevent you from having competence in another language is wrong. But many people still have the perception. So you have people from poor families today in the country or even middle class people — at least for poor families you can understand their thinking that maybe if they learned English they could get a better job etc., which I’m not saying is a bad thing. I’m not saying you should not learn English. But having middle class people say it to themselves: I will learn English but I will not learn my own local language or mother tongue because it will prevent me from acquiring another language is a stupid argument because is not true and it is buying into the idea that your language is inferior which is also a result of colonial domination.

One day I was on Twitter and there was this news that Twitter was expanding the translation platform of the service to include a number of other languages and as I found lately, which equally happens with many of these things, I was joking with a friend of mine that I’m sure the language they are adding is not an African language. So we went to look at it. I cannot remember what it was. I said why is Twitter not in Yorùbá already. There are many Nigerians who speak Yorùbá, who use Twitter every day and, if given a chance, they would want to tweet in their own language. Again Twitter is a place where young people work and spend all their time and if it exists in the language they can speak, it will give them more incentive to use it. I mean you can say why are people not trying to learn their mother tongue etc.? But if everywhere they look: in literature, in technology, in government, in schools, they are being told that the language does not systematically function, they automatically switch away from it. So I have been interested in finding all those ways and new ways to incorporate these language knowledge and intention and care about speaking and learning your language into those spaces.

So we decided we were going to start what we called Tweet Yorùbá day. That was in 2012 and what we were going to do was find and tell everybody on Twitter who speaks Yorùbá to tweet everything they write that day in Yorùbá no matter how good or poor they are. And that they should copy @twitter and let them know that Yorùbá is what we speak and we want Twitter to exist in the language. So we did that all day. A number of people participated. Many people did not even know why. They just saw tweet Yorùbá day trending and everybody participated. I had written a blog post explaining why we were doing this on my blog. At the end of the day, someone from Twitter must have seen it because people were speaking in this strange language they did not know or understand. They contacted me and said they’ve heard us and will look into it. That was 2012. In 2013, by March 1, the same time as the previous year, they had not gotten back to me. We said we were going to do it again. We named that March 1 Tweet Yorùbá day and we did the same thing all over again. Twitter did not say anything.

Then in 2014, we did the same thing. By then so many people had heard about it. So, later in August that year, someone sent me a tweet saying (this person worked with Twitter): I have something to show you and then I saw it — the translation for the Twitter platform is now available in Yorùbá and Esperanto. They opened the platform and invited writers and speakers of Yorùbá to come and help them translate and we did that. It took months. They have not yet launched that Twitter Yorùbá. But at least they opened the platform and we have been able to do that and that gives me hope that if you want something to happen you have to work for it, have to try and make effort. There is still a long way to go for my language and Yorùbá is just one language. There are several languages in the country. As a linguist I’m interested in the survival of all these languages. I want all the languages we have in Nigeria to thrive. That is a very ambitious and sometimes an unrealistic expectation because there are so many languages there. Some will die no matter what you do. But I am interested in providing opportunities through the skills I have as a linguist, as a technological savvy person to create opportunities for anyone who speaks any of these languages to thrive to bring whatever knowledge they have of that language to mix it with technology and create opportunities for young people who care enough to use it. If we do not do this, we are losing the language at the end of the day.

With literature, I have tried to write Yorùbá. It is hard. As a writer, I came into writing from the English angle even though my father is a writer as well. He has written in Yorùbá. At least he grew up in an environment where English was not a factor. It was just there in the periphery and Yorùbá was everything they did. So, I have been trying to get back to that stage where I can write creatively in Yorùbá. I am working hard on that. One of my works has been in writing the effect of language endangerment and showing the opportunities that exist today in literature or governance. I have suggested that presidents of Nigeria for instance, whenever they travel abroad should try to speak their language to the audience they are speaking to because most times there is a translator around that can interpret what you’re saying. That way, you can show the people you’re meeting that you speak a different language and this language works, and when the people in your country hear you speaking your language abroad, they have more pride in that language and they might want to use it as well.

Many people have challenged that argument because there are so many languages in the country, which one does the president use? If a president is using one, is he excluding the other? My response has been presidents come and go. One president will come, he might speak Hausa, another will come, he will speak Yorùbá, and another will speak Igbo. Over time, we will get into ourselves and people observing our country will understand the multiplicity that exists within the language situation in Nigeria. It will help the language better develop.

Most of you are familiar with Nigerian writers: Tẹ́jú Cole, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Wọlé Ṣóyínká etc. Like I said they came from a different generation of writers so they wrote mostly in English. But also they surrendered to a kind of British-imposed or Western-imposed idea of how to write literature. I am giving an example of the writing style — the diacritic marks in Yorùbá. Yorùbá is a tone language like Chinese. A word can mean different things depending on the kind of diacritic tone it has. A word like ọwọ́ means hand. Ọ̀wọ̀ means respect. Owó means money, while ọwọ̀ is broom. These words have just o-w-o and depending on the kind of sign you put on it, you might confuse the person that is listening. Yorùbá scholars have, over time, done some work in orthography and created how to best express Yorùbá in text. One of the reasons I am reading about Korean writing style is that I am interested in observing what kind of opportunities exist to create a new writing style that people will be more familiar with. Currently what we have is an orthography that involves putting the diacritical marks. With those diacritical marks, you might want to say one thing and mean another. There’s a word in Yorùbá that can mean husband or hoe or vehicle or penis; and, depending on who you’re talking to, if you do not mark it well you might be saying something embarrassing that you did not mean to say in the first place.

When people: Chinua Achebe, Wọlé Ṣóyínká were writing, they were writing with English minds and so when they get to Yorùbá expressions that they want to include in the writing, they do not include the marks. If you look at the paper in front of you, and you see how my name is written; those are the marks I am talking about. Most Nigerians today have not learned how to use it because they grew up in generations where their parents did not teach them how to do it or they did not care and do not think it is important and that is the kind of generation Wọlé Ṣóyínká, Tẹjú Cole and the rest of them came from. I find that embarrassing. The idea of having the literature of a country is to be able to embody the cultural – everything that matters about that environment. And I think that even though you are writing in English, when you are writing text that has to do with Yorùbá, you should pay attention to express that language as properly as possibly.

The irony for me and why it makes it so sad and upsetting is that these same people when they meet a French name in their writing will write them properly with the accent (like what you find on café, for instance) and everything that comes in French. When they are writing in Swedish, it’s the same. One of the essays I wrote some years ago about Tẹ́jú Cole, who is a very important brilliant Nigerian writer, was about his book of essays called Known and Strange Things and many of the names he mentioned were Swedish (like Tranströmer) and German names etc., with special diacritics and all. He wrote them all properly. But whenever he was writing Yorùbá names and Yorùbá words, he wrote them bland without any mark, which was jarring to me.

I have said in a number of my writing that one of the things we need to do as Africans to better express ourselves is to first understand who we are and try to have a conversation about how we want to present ourselves and, you know, get out of that mindset that the British have put us into over time, and maybe in doing that we might come to what is truly African literature. I do not have a problem with African literature being in English, some of them being in English, but I also want a situation where the majority of African literature is not just in English, or in French or in Portuguese which are all languages that were brought into the place. Before those people came, we told stories, and we found a way to communicate and to share ideas and knowledge and we should be able continue doing that even if we have to translate them back to English, which is not a problem. Places like Korea have shown us how it would work. My task is to learn from places like this, places like Wales, like Kenya, like South Africa and other places that have tapped into the knowledge base of the local language and used it to better themselves in literature, in education, in politics and most importantly technology.

I will welcome your questions now. I hope you read the essay and let me know if you have any questions even when I’m gone. But this is generally an overview of what I do, why I do it, and the kinds of challenges I’ve been looking forward to.

Thank you so much.

Related imageKọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a writer and linguist, founder of Yorùbá In 2016, he was awarded the Ostana Prize in Literature, in Cuneo, Italy, for his work in indigenous language advocacy.


Talk transcribed by Ọpẹ́ Adédèjì





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