I am Yorùbá, but I cannot speak my language

Nigeria speech

I am Yorùbá, but I cannot speak my language. Well, not fluently at least. As a British-born Nigerian growing up in London, I was used to hearing my parents and relatives switch between Yorùbá and English all the time. I grew up understanding Yorùbá, but always responded to it using English. I remember as a teenager, my parents would always find the opportunity to put me on the spot in front of guests or extended family by saying “Oya, so ni Yorùbá!” (meaning “Go on, say it in Yorùbá!”, whenever I spoke in English). For my parents, it was a way to encourage me, but unfortunately for my teen self, it was the most embarrassing thing in the world!

So, to slightly adjust my initial statement, I can understand Yorùbá and can speak it, but I cannot claim to be a fully bilingual Yorùbá and English speaker (yet; there’s still time).

Ọpẹ́yẹwá Ògúńṣẹ̀ye̩

I vaguely remember when I came across the Yorùbá course at SOAS, I believe it was in 2015, a few years prior to me enrolling as an MA student at the School. It was most likely during one of my weekly, internal, self-questioning sessions (what am I doing with my life, who am I, what’s really going on?) and I looked to Google for answers (#millennialproblems). What I do remember is watching the Yorùbá taster video on SOAS’s website at the time and I started to get quite excited about the prospect of learning the language again.

You may be asking, “why did you not just practice at home with your family?”. I definitely could have done that and I really wanted to. The problem was that, in addition to the feeling of embarrassment I still felt at times, I found I was harbouring an irrational feeling of shame and discomfort, which completely held me back from uttering a single word in Yorùbá to anyone in my family.

While I didn’t take up the course back in 2015, once I found out I was offered a spot to start my MA in Linguistics at SOAS in 2018, I immediately decided that Yorùbá would be one of my modules. I even told my parents who were nothing but happy to hear about my decision. Knowing that I didn’t necessarily need to learn Yorùbá from scratch, I decided to enrol onto the Yorùbá 1B course and hoped that I would be able to fill in any missing gaps, mainly to do with certain vocabulary that I may not have heard through family, or from watching the occasional Yorùbá movie on Nollywood.

I was very fortunate to have had a great lecturer for Yorùbá who has such strong knowledge of the language. In class we would practice everyday conversations on topics such as, talking about your favourite Naija songs or food, asking for directions or even bartering at the market as if we were in the thick of Lagos! I also had the opportunity to query some technical features of the language. As a linguist, it was really fun being able to deconstruct the language in a way that I was unable to do before. Another great aspect of the course was getting to interact with other students who like me, were there to learn and just keen to speak Yorùbá freely and confidently.

One thing I was able to delve into freely is the meaning behind Yorùbá proverbs. Those who are familiar with the language will know that Yorùbá people love a good proverb and will often use them to express something in conversation. One of my favourite proverbs (also well known in English) is “Gbogbo ohun tó ńdán kọ́ ni wúrà.”, meaning “Not all that shines is beautiful”, i.e. “Not all that glitters is gold”.

Being able to learn Yorùbá at SOAS gave me the unique opportunity to not only deepen my practical knowledge of the language, but it gave me the confidence to speak Yorùbá freely and without the feeling of shame for not knowing the language well enough. I even now utter some conversational words and phrases to my parents sometimes. Getting there, slowly but surely! I would strongly recommend the Yorùbá learning experience at SOAS to students who are interested and I hope others seize the opportunity to contribute to sustaining Yorùbá language use within the SOAS community and within the Yorùbá speaking communities.

Ọpẹ́yẹwá Ògúńṣẹ̀ye̩ is a SOAS alumna, having completed her MA in Language Documentation and Description (Linguistics) in 2020. For her dissertation research, she focused on the language practices of adolescent refugees and asylum seekers in London. Yẹwá hopes to do further research in the future on the language practices of internally displaced people in Nigeria.

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