Thursday, April 7, 2011

Not Speaking Yoruba

It is with more than a pang of regret that I acknowledge that I do not understand Yoruba.

OK, that's not entirely true. After all, there is nothing you can say to me in Yoruba that I won't understand. There isn't enough Nigeria in my voice, apparently, to give this understanding of the language away, but I've actually learned to like that. I relish the look on people's faces when they talk about me in Yoruba as though I am not there, only to have their eyes widen in shock when I respond. Yes, I respond in Yoruba sometimes, so it's probably not true, is it, that I don't know any Yoruba.

I should be more clear: speaking Yoruba, speaking it well, is not the same as speaking English well. You can do quite well without speaking English idiomatically, each word an island that reveals itself through practice of conjugations and direct meaning, like a street increasingly familiar with returning visits. Words in English take their place like soldiers. Subject, verb, direct object. You can get more complex than that if you wanted to, of course, but it really is enough to convey your meaning the majority of the time.

Yoruba, however, doesn't work that way. True, you can learn Yoruba in a classroom, like I did in my primary school days, with paperback textbooks the exact thickness as freshly-ironed adire. You could, but why would you, when you could listen to your grandparents talk, read the Yoruba daily newspaper Alaroyin, watch Yoruba movies and laugh at the grammatically-incorrect English captions? No. Yoruba is to be experienced, lived, not – in the academic sense of the word – learned.

And, anyway, the kind of Yoruba you learn is not the kind of Yoruba you want to speak. Where English lines up, Yoruba is a contortionist. I am going to the market. The market, I am going. Both correct. And as you get to more complex situations, this ability to shape and reshape itself gets even thornier, expecting the speaker to move into a thicket of idioms, metaphor. In English, this will only serve to embellish, soften the stark nakedness of one's words. Not quite so in Yoruba. Individual words in this language can take on so many meanings, depending on where one places emphasis. Ife could be a small, university town some hour or so outside of Ibadan, or it can be love. Oko can mean husband, or perhaps forest, and, maybe, if you really butcher it, penis. This nuance is true not just of Yoruba pronunciation, but of Yoruba itself.

To understand Yoruba, then, is to know not just the words themselves, but the spirit in which the words can be used. Someone like me who merely speaks Yoruba can tell you what is bothering them. A person who truly speaks Yoruba will use metaphor as stand-in for himself, at once distancing himself from his words and bringing him – and by extension, his listener – closer to his real meaning. One realizes that this is not a language to be spoken plainly. And if you do, it is because you don't truly understand.

The older one gets in Nigeria, the more one notices the wedges that so many drive into our society. Accent and language is one such wedge, and it is not lost on me what it means to not speak my language. One finds this in English, too, where even the slightest whiff of foreignness is noted and commented on. Immediately comes to barrage of questions: Where are you from? How long have you lived in Nigeria? How long did you live abroad? These I find more understandable and less curious than the responses one gets to the inability to speak Yoruba. One is often met with what can be described as interest, but it really is something more akin to fascination. Who is this person, where did they come from, that they were so surrounded by English that they never got to learn? On occasion, one may get the “it is your mother tongue, why don't you speak it, eh?” But even this is spoken with in irritability directed at not the fact of one's level of fluency, but rather a fact of one's supposed social status. What that question means is very often “who do you think you are that you can't even deign to speak the language?”

Collective self-esteem issues always seem to pervade post-colonized spaces, and it takes different forms from African countries to the United States, from Asia to Latin America. One may even deem the latching on to something else almost necessary, a step that acknowledges the new standard in which things get validated before crafting something of one's own that meets that standard for oneself. As I say this, I am thinking of the way this new popular culture came up in most African counties, where young folks are no longer ashamed to request songs made in their own countries on radio shows, as they were not even quite a decade ago. I don't know, but I do know that the self-esteem issues that relate to culture metamorphosize, change shape. From the way American conservative nativists in the U.S talk, almost spitting in their withering contempt at the effete ways and artsy sensibilities of Europeans, we from African countries can see ourselves: the way the men from Africa are the more manly; the way the black women are stronger than their frailer, paler counterparts; the way Nigerian children are smarter than white ones, regardless of where the white people come from. We may wallow for awhile, but we always somehow find comfort, grasping at the straws of our inadequacies for something bright to hold on to.

But this is not about the self-esteem of a shapeless collective; it's about my own. After all, it's not like all Nigerians born of my generation speak so abysmally their native language. I wonder what the draw to English and not to Yoruba says about who I was at an earlier age, and what it was that I saw then. And I wonder what this pang of regret really means, and what it says about who I am now.


  1. As a kid, I think that I didn't feel there was any need to learn to speak Yoruba. It was a language meant for the older generation, partly their own fault for speaking to us in English.
    Now, I've come to realize the importance of language. How it solidifies the connections people within a community have. How friends not from Toronto can speak english with very north american accents and switch, with little effort and fuss to their own native tongue. I envy this.
    You're right about it being inadequate to learn Yoruba from movies and the rest. You've really got to be in the environment for it. I need to go to Lagos and spend a good amount of time there.

  2. I love this post.

    To me as an aspiring polyglot, learning Yoruba from movies and books is an adequate starting point. From there you move on to the environment. As it is, anytime I try to speak Yoruba words literally die in my throat and when I finally say something it's in a different language (and not English!). Needless to say I find this frustrating. I understand more Hausa than Yoruba (apparently I used to switch between Hausa and English when I was much younger but even my Hausa is rusty these days).

    I gave up on Yoruba as a teenager because any time I spoke people made fun of me (they still do). I figured English was enough for me and moved on learning other languages. Now, I've made it my mission to learn Yoruba or die trying. I need to make that effort to speak Yoruba, it has to be done no matter whatever difficulties I may face.