Nigerian linguist and lexicographer, Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, joined our Editor in Chief on a virtual hangout for a conversation about Google, Nigerian languages, translations, African literature and the English expression—a topic Túbọ̀sún frequently writes for his Chevening Research Fellowship at the British Library in London..
Ukamaka Olisakwe: You collaborated with Google and got Yoruba language diacritics into GBoard. You also worked with a team that taught Google assistant how to speak Nigerian English with a familiar Nigerian accent. In your interview with TechPoint, you said you were inspired to take on these projects because “when we are able to recognise ourselves in the technology we use, we’d trust it more.” Aside from this being a part of your work as a linguist and lexicographer, I wonder, though, if there are other motivations behind these passionate projects you take on.
KT: Thank you, Ukamaka. First, let me put on the record the extent of my work on these items. I was at Google between October 2015 and July 2016, and between February 2019 to December 2019. It was during the first go-around that much of these Nigerian language projects you know about were achieved. My work in the second go-around has not been released. The main reason I was employed for the first time — as a full-time contractor, actually — was to lead the team that was to create the Nigerian English voice. Everything else came much later, including the GBoard work, which happened in the last weeks of my employment, when the Nigerian voice project had been all but suspended and we had a lot of free time. A team had begun working on this new app that would allow users to write in their own languages, so as a side project, I got on the task to find all the special characters in Nigerian languages. I remember asking friends on Facebook for help then. So the focus wasn’t on Yorùbá but on all Nigerian languages. We added the special characters in Hausa, Igbo, Yorùbá, and all other languages we got input for. The project didn’t even have a name then, and I didn’t know what purpose it was for until GBoard was launched in 2018 when I was no longer at Google. I wrote about my feelings about it on Medium.
So my motivations are many. On the one hand, there is the professional impetus to put linguistics to practical use. It’s been something I have been quite excited about since my first year of university. It was what made me stay in the course in the early 2000s, what made me apply for the Fulbright Teaching Assistantship in 2008 to the US, it’s what made me create YorubaName.com in 2015, TTSYoruba.com (2017), and many other practical language technology tools. But the other, which has conveniently overlapped with the first motivation, is my desire to see myself (and my continent) better reflected in the technologies I use, and to see those technologies more capable of reflecting my culture, ideals, and capabilities. Since the first time the computer underlined my name with that wriggly red line in Microsoft Word, I have thought about the problem of exclusion that treats African languages like outsiders in the global language community. The internet is treated as an extension of the English language empire, with little or no representation of African languages in it. This has led to the problems we have on Google Translate with Nigerian languages, and general lack of speech products for African languages. I mention often that Yorùbá has over 30 million speakers and Siri doesn’t exist in it. But three languages Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish combined have about 15 million speakers in all, and each language has a Siri voice. I have a strong desire to change that dynamic. There’s no reason why I can’t have a GPS voice in Yorùbá or Igbo or Igbanke or Edo. There’s no reason why products from Nigeria can’t have its manual in Hausa or Ibani. And there’s no reason why literature from Nigeria only has to be in English, etc. So all the work I do stem from a combination of these complementary impulses.
Uka: You just mentioned the general lack of products for African languages and why literature from Nigerian mostly has to be written in English. Often, writers get embroiled in heated disagreements with western editors who expect them to interpret even the simplest Nigerian English into the “standard” British or American English. Take for example, when I write “Mama has woken and we will not hear word,” Microsoft Word underlines the last two words and suggests a revision, and most western editors expect some sort of translation for this peculiar Nigerian expression of frustration. And it is fascinating, this demand that we should and must translate ourselves for the western audience even though the major part of our works, sometimes 99.9%, are written in British or American English. If we are even allowed to sneak in our own essence into our texts, we are encouraged to italicise our words or phrases; a sort of semantic exclusion happens within the text, inadvertently judging our Nigerian English or languages to be inferior. Do you think that with you and colleagues’ work at Google, that we will soon be transitioning into a new phase where the guardians of the supposed standard Englishes will be more accepting and quit othering our languages?
KT: As you know, the Oxford English Dictionary recently added about two dozen new words and expressions from Nigerian English into the lexicon, which shows that some attention is being given anew to the many emerging variants of English around the world. Things are already changing gradually. But as I have also argued, it is more to the advantage of English as a hegemonic language that 29 words added from Nigeria is celebrated as a big achievement. The action was done to enrich English, not really to enrich Nigeria or Nigerian English. English, through the OED and other agencies, has added (maybe “stolen” is a better way to put it) words from other cultures from the beginning of time. Bungalow was taken from Hindi. “alcohol” and “algorithm” from Arabic, “kindergarten” from German, “restaurant” from French, etc. English continues to grow while these other languages follow behind. It is why I have also advocated for more work to be done to standardize and publicise our own way of using the language, here at home.
And this will happen through literature, with people like you insisting to editors that how you have written something is how you’d prefer it to be published. OED, Google, and other tech and language institutions work with a corpus of published materials. The 29 words added in 2020 came from regularly used expressions found in printed Nigerian and global sources. So the more people like you use your preferred way of speaking English, the more the frequency of that expression in print and language corpora, the faster they get into popular accepted use. That is the best way to game it, I think, through literature, and Nollywood, and other media platforms. Tech companies themselves also have a responsibility, if they want to continue to profit from us. I’ve suggested often that whenever a computer is being used in Nigeria—and they know this because you set your country on starting it up—the red lines do not need to show under Nigerian names. It makes no sense. So maybe eventually, we’ll also be able to add elements of style into the software, such that you can select “Nigerian English” and have it ignore what it thinks to be errors, and suggest new ways for you to better reflect your own way of speaking. All these won’t happen by themselves, but one hopes that someone is listening.
But there’s also the element of government policy. Until Nigerian English is standardized at home, tested at WAEC level, etc. Until our Oral English syllabus stop penalising Nigerian English phonology, then we have not started. We need to find a way of telegraphing to the world that we accept and support our own way of speaking English, then they will too.
Uka: During a panel discussion with the folks at Culture Tree, we spoke about the rot in our school system—how our instructors discourage students from speaking their native languages in the classrooms, except on days when those languages are taught as part of the school curriculum. I remember you mentioned a contrary federal law, which many states are yet to adopt or embrace. Could you speak a little about that?
KT: I assume you mean the National Policy on Education first published in 1977. At the time, it recommended that students in Nigeria must first be taught in their mother tongues for the first three years of life, before transitioning to English. It also suggested that if that isn’t possible, then the language of the immediate surrounding be used. I just went online to check the current status of the policy and found that having been revised twice (in 1981 and 1998), the current suggestion now reads: “Government appreciates the importance of language as a means of promoting social interaction and national cohesion; preserving cultures. Thus every child shall learn the language of the immediate environment. Furthermore, in the interest of national unity it is expedient that every child shall require to learn one of the three Nigeria languages: Hausa, Igbo Yoruba.”
The part suggesting that the first three years of life be spent learning the mother tongue is no longer there. But it used to be an official government position.
But even when it was officially mandated, very few schools abided with that policy on mother tongue education. And with the proliferation of private schools, it was hard for the government to enforce it anyway, since private nursery schools did whatever they wanted — and parents preferred to send their kids to schools that had English-only early education. It left only public schools complying. And you had to be six to enter a public primary school, so the purpose was defeated.
What I find ironic still is this new inclusion that likely never used to be there: “For smooth interaction with our neighbours, it is desirable for every Nigeria to speak French. Accordingly, French shall be compulsory in primary and Junior Secondary Schools but Non- Vocational Elective at the senior Secondary School.”
As you know, with the new policy shift of the Goodluck Administration in about 2015, Nigerian languages were fully dropped from the syllabus, along with History, and replaced with Civics, Computer Science, and Vocational Training (I believe). However noble the intention behind the policy change was, it has affected the way Nigerian languages are taught in our schools, and how our kids acquire education.
Uka: And then there is this notion that fluency in colonial languages like French and German and Spanish, or even Chinese, obliges the speakers some economic capital on the international playing field. Do you think that it is why our educators are so disinterested in encouraging students to speak their mother tongues in the classroom?
KT: There is that, which has validity. But there is also an ingrained inferiority complex which Fẹlá called “colonial mentality”– a sense that if something is ours, it must be inferior. Or that we need to become like others before our humanity is valid. If it were just the economic argument, then we’ll hold our languages as equal, and just add the foreign/international languages as complements. But we have been actively demoting our languages in favour of the hegemonic foreign ones, so it’s more insidious. And the economic argument is tenuous at best anyway. Korea is a more economically successful country than Nigeria, and its citizens speak its language in schools, and use it as a medium of instruction. Same with Japan, Israel, China, etc, even if they learn English too.
Uka: It’s such a strange quandary we’ve found ourselves in—the artists and linguists pushing to place Nigerian languages on the same pedestal as other foreign languages, while some educators discourage this important conversation with their classroom bans; they essentially have erected themselves Guardians of Colonial Languages in Nigeria. Do you see a way out of this mess we’ve found ourselves in?
KT: It’s not just the educators, by the way. There’s an ingrained conditioning in the culture, symptoms of which can be found even in ‘educated’ spaces. I have had some of these arguments with folks on Twitter whom you’d have assumed to be otherwise educated, who insist that it is the competence in speaking English that makes you civilized. One comes across variations of this online almost every day. Here’s one. It’s a kind of self-hate. So the educators and policymakers take their lead from this inane societal conditioning. And any change that happens must also come both from a change in policy — obviously — but also in mental and social conditioning. It’s a chicken and egg situation, in that it’s hard to know which should come first. But one must, and the other must follow. If we changed the syllabus for teaching English to include recognition for Nigerian English, we must also let the parents and stakeholders know that it does not mean that we devalue education, and that students will now never be respected abroad. They must know that the opposite is actually the case. Recognising opportunities for learning in Nigerian languages will make some students more likely to understand what is being taught than not, and free them to innovate, and be creative. And we have to demonstrate that. My visit to a Welsh-medium school in 2016 showed me how this can work. Many of the students in the school came from English language homes, and their results attest to performing better than those who go to English-medium schools. So when the results begin to speak for itself, it will be easier to make the arguments. But it shouldn’t stop us from making it even before the policies are changed. Part of my work is to highlight these problems. I don’t hold a policy post in government, but one hopes that those in such positions can begin to rethink the policies we’ve had over the years, and break the cycle of madness that keeps doing the same thing and expecting a different result. One day we’ll be loud enough, or on positions to make such large or incremental changes.
Uka: Okay, I’m going to drag you into that inconclusive debate about African literature and the English expression: do you agree with the school (Obi Wali, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o) who advocated for African literature to be written in African languages; or the likes of Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo and Dambuzdo Marechera, who vehemently rejected that idea; or even, the general agreement reached at the Conference of African Writers of English Expression held in Makerere College, Kampala, in June I962, which said, “it is better for an African writer to think and feel in his own language and then look for an English transliteration approximating the original”?
KT: What I have found, on the one hand, is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. English is no longer as foreign in Africa as it used to be in the 60s when first language speakers who represented the empire lived among us, and the conversations being had were — in some way — tailored into showing them that we were human too, that we could use the language too, or decide not to use it. There was an assertiveness to the conversation, a kind of an affirmation even if only to difference, or a chance to decide whether the language was ours to use and bend or ours to toss and burn. Negritude came out of this type of grappling.
Some parts of the conversation are moot now, though only supplanted by others. English can no longer be said — with a straight face — to be only a foreign language. It is an African language, in many countries in Africa, in the same way as Pidgin is. This was the complexity I tried to explore in this essay written when the Nigerian movie Lionheart was disqualified from the Oscars in 2019 for using English, which the judges deemed was not foreign enough. But whenever Nigerian grad students applied for schooling in the US, they had to write TOEFL or IELTS, which concedes, without saying so, that Nigerian English is a foreign language to international speakers. Few, if any, American speakers of English can survive a day on the streets of Lagos only on their knowledge of English. They likely won’t hear everything the everyday Nigerian says, in English unless they have an interpreter.
On the other hand, there is this problem of endangerment that African languages face from decades of non-use. The presence of English — even as an African language — has affected the development of the other languages it met on the continent. The problem is not just from the presence of English, but also from the absence of critical pushback against its utter domination by people who care. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one of these people, and he’s doing his part. Teachers, government policymakers, etc, have their roles to play.
When I look back at my upbringing, however, I remember that the Yorùbá verbal arts surrounded me in a way that didn’t feel particularly threatened by English. The first poets I listened to were Odòlayé Àrẹ̀mú, Ògúndáre Fọ́yánmu, Àlàbí Ògúndépò, etc. The first books I read were of Bámijí Òjó, Adébáyọ̀ Fálétí, Akínwùnmí Ìṣọ̀lá, among others. All in Yorùbá. The attitude in the home, through the use of Yorùbá, didn’t feel like it was a fight, a rebellion, an assertive pushback against a big hegemonic domination. It was just what it was — how things are, and how they should be. My father even published a Yorùbá newspaper for a few years. Many examples exist of ways in which literature (and oratures) have survived and thrived in the local language, even before Ngugi changed his mind about publishing in English. D.O. Fágúnwà’s novels were published in the late 40s, for instance, and there were other writings by Nigerian before him (as I explored in this blog). Even modern hip-hop has continued to show us how this can work, through the work of people like Phyno or Ọlámidé.
What I am trying to say is that no prescription is needed. People who want to publish in their local languages can, have, and should continue to do so, though we can do with new writers, for sure. I always mention the irony that the thriving local industry of publishing in Yorùbá began to fade after the British left. Most Yorùbá language novels were published when they were around. Nigeria’s publishing industry today is dominated by Nigerians, so what’s the excuse for not publishing novels in Yorùbá or Igbo or Hausa? Why is the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature only awarding novels in English? Why do we still just have Literature in English in our high school curriculum? Why are there no local grants for translation of literary works from English into Nigerian languages? None of these have to do with the 1962 debate, but our own deficit of imagination.
Today, when I listen to Odòlayé Àrẹ̀mú, a Yorùbá poet of immense depth, creativity, and dexterity, I feel less of any particular need for assertion. I exist in a world that is already sufficient. Odòlayé never went to school nor was invited to the Kampala Conference, so he never needed to be told in which language to express himself. Yet his work endures among his listeners and beyond, past the years of many of the 1962 Conference attendees.
Uka: Which is why your work is so important. What are some of the challenges you have faced on the job?
KT: As a linguist, I’ve stopped seeing obstacles but challenges. Attention has now been drawn to these issues due to the work and advocacy of mine and others over the last couple of years. If anyone told me in 2015 that Google Assistant will be speaking Nigerian English in 2019, I would not have believed. So, incremental changes are happening. As a writer, the challenges are the same: the institutional barriers to publishing in the local language, for instance, stemming from the skittishness of publishers afraid of making a loss if they bet on local language projects. Those will change eventually, when someone dares and makes a success of the endeavour.
The biggest challenge has been personal. When I started translating short stories of contemporary Nigerian writers into Yorùbá last year, I realized how much more I still need to know about how my own language works, and how much more the language needs to do in order to properly carry the weight of contemporary experience. Having spoken English much of my adult life, my literary competence in Yorùbá had begun to suffer, so I had to re-learn and reactivate it, through use, which is a fun and fulfilling creative process. I realized it is one of those things you have to use or lose.
And then there is the lack of resources for literary translators into Nigerian languages. You’ll find plenty grants and fellowship opportunities for translators into English and all these hegemonic languages. People translating into Nigerian (or smaller) languages often have to go on their own.
Uka: Isele Magazine soon will be looking to publish works translated into Nigerian languages. I guess we all are conquering this challenge one step at a time. At the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa in 2016, I met a Chinese writer, Zhou Jianing, who had translated major English language novels into Chinese, including the works of Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates. What are some of the works you’ll like to have translated into your chosen Nigerian language?
KT: The first major short story I translated was The Shivering by Chimamanda Adichie, which was published in the Fall Issue of the University of Michigan’s Absinthe. (It was later pulled because the publishers didn’t sort out their copyright issues with the writer, but they told me it would be back soon). The second one I did was The Mothers, a short story you wrote, which was first published in Waxwing Mag. I am still working on the third, a short story by Rótìmí Babátúndé. My aim is to publish a collection of these translated shorts, when I find a publisher. I focus on contemporary short stories first because Africa is enjoying a good time now in global literature. But I also intend to go back into our classical stories as well. I think translation is underrated and underappreciated—especially translation into our own languages—and it makes me happy that Isele Magazine is giving it renewed attention.
Uka: Thank you. Now, when you think about the future of Nigerian/African writing, what comes to mind?
KT: A multiplicity of colours, languages, people, and mediums! As I argued in a 2013 interview, an e-book is still a book. Literary prizes, for instance, need to look beyond physical publications alone for new and important writing. As the pandemic has shown, the web is just as good a place to find creativity. I want creative work from Nigeria/Africa to continue to surprise and inspire the world. But I want more work that speaks to our own citizens as well, than ones chasing foreign validation, which—to be clear—will come when the work is good. I look forward to more opportunities and mediums for telling many of our stories.
Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of ‘Edwardsville by Heart’, a collection of poetry. He’s currently the Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library in London.