The First Class
It was with a little apprehension that the teacher walked towards that Peck Hall classroom at 1.30 p.m. on Monday to begin his first teaching assignment. He had waited for this day for a long while, but when the reality stared him in the face just before he entered the class, he wondered for a micro-second whether it would be worth all the travel.
His outfit already stood him out; no one walking in the corridor would have missed his looking different. He could only be “that professor from Africa.” I mean, who still wore native caps these days but the Africans? In one hand was his bike helmet, in the other were the copies of the course syllabus. Slung behind him was a black cloth bag containing his needed texts.
The students were waiting for him when he entered, on time, and he immediately contrasted that fact with the Nigerian university system where students would still stroll into class thirty minutes after the lecture started, offering no word of remorse even when the teacher stopped talking and stared at them from his lectern. Two students came in some seconds before he closed the classroom door, they were apologetic. They entered quietly and found comfortable spots.
“Ẹ káàsán o. Ẹyin akẹkọọ,” he started, smiling. And the class went silent!
He had planned for this reaction. But it was still disquieting, as if he had just polluted the air. A second trial yielded a few suppressed sounds, more encouraging.
“Ẹ káàsán o. Ẹ̀yin akẹ́kọ̀ọ́,” he said. He picked up a chalk to write it out, in full, with all the tone marks. He figured that if there was any one of them not sufficiently prepared for a semester of learning a new language with weird writing patterns, this would be the breaking point. He was almost sure that by then, a few of them would have already started thinking of a way out of this problematic class.
He then wrote out his name, in full. He pointed at this then continued—
“Orúkọ mi ni Arákùnrin Kólá Ọlátúbòsún. Ẹyin Nkọ?”
Everyone kept quiet, all looked a little amused. A few giggled though. It was just what he was waiting for.
He touched his chest, moved away from the board, and repeated.
“Orúkọ mi ni Arákùnrin Kólá.”
Then he pointed at the one with the most mischievous smile, “Ìwọ nkọ́?”
She looked lost, as did a few more, and then after a moment of almost uncomfortable silence, the bulb lit up in someone’s brain and he shouted from the back, “Ross!”
“Beautiful,” the teacher responded, the first time he would speak English in the class.
The class seemed a little more at ease from then and volunteered their names in turn: ‘Keonia’, ‘Adam’, ‘Amber’, ‘Tonde’, etc.
“But you shouldn’t just say your name,” he corrected. “You should preface it with ‘Orúkọ mi ni…’ then put in your name. Let’s do it again in pairs, shall we?”
“Kíni orúkọ rẹ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Amber.” “Iwọ nkọ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Tonde.”
“Kíni orúkọ rẹ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Trish.” “Iwọ nkọ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Ross.”
“Kíni orúkọ rẹ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Keonia.” “Iwọ nkọ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Adam.”
…and that went all around the class of thirteen students, only three of whom are black — out of which one (Tonde) was a Nigerian Ijaw.
The “orúkọ” sounded on their tongues like he expected it, conforming to a musical pattern peculiar to those to whom any tone language can be surmounted with music. A native speaker might have been amused. He was. But as a new teacher, it was an encouraging, even positive, sign: the willingness to try, to make fun of oneself in order to impress a stranger.
When the class was over, he realised it was a better experience than he expected. He left feeling elated and even a little swollen-headed. “This is going to be fun. I am actually teaching my language in an American university!” The aim of the course, as he was told by the coordinator, who was both American and Yorùbá, was to make authentic Yorùbá speakers out of those bright and brilliant American students. By the end of the class, which had lasted one and a quarter hour, they seemed to have forgotten about time, and all they wanted to say was ‘Sé alàáfíà ni’, ‘Báwo ni’, ‘Dáadáa ni. Ìwọ nkọ́’.
When evening came, he wrote in a blog he had kept since the teaching programme began:
“Today in Nigeria, Britain or America, there are thousands of children to whom their parents have refused speak their language; to whom their own mother tongue is anything but relevant, important, or useful. Ask these parents the motivations for their choice, they tell you that the language is incapable of providing jobs or a viable future for the child. ‘They will learn French instead,’ they say ‘or Spanish.’ I even hear that Mandarin Chinese is hot these days. China is the future. I’d let my child learn that before I let them speak Igbo, or Yorùbá!’ When these children reach twenty-one, these same parents, many of who have dual citizenship with Britain and America, will have to put out thousands of dollars out just to enrol their children in ‘African’ summer schools that teach Igbo, and Yorùbá, and Hausa. This time, the teacher will be those to whom the languages are not even a first language. As for me, I’m having fun here, and discovering interesting new things about my language, and how it comes across to the complete strangers hearing it for the very first time.”
By the next class, each of those students would have chosen their own personal Yorùbá names to be used in class and everywhere else. No more Ross, Trish or Adam. The Yorùbánisation begins!
The Second Class
The teacher did not think much of his own language advantage when he entered the second class where his students waited expectantly. He was aware, though, that it would never be an easy thing learning a new language, especially not one with tone marks, sub-dots, proverbs and really strange-sounding consonants. But when he found that most of the students had already chosen their favourite Yorùbá names by the beginning of class on Wednesday, he almost hopped around in excitement. A few more followed suit on the following Monday, and by the second Wednesday (which would technically be the fourth class), everybody had become Yorubanised, if only by name. Students had gone online to find their unique names, its meaning and pronunciation, and they each took turns in class to speak about it, eagerly and with a twinkle in their intriguing eyes.
“I will be Yéjídé,” Keonia said when prompted. “It means mother has come back early.”
The teacher looked a little amused as he asked the student where her mother or grandmother had gone when she was born. “Nowhere,” she replied. “They’re still alive, but I love the name.”
That seemed fair enough.
Ross was absent. He had dropped the class and would not be returning. Adam stayed, and would be ‘Babáfẹ́mi’ from then on. When the teacher inquired again with a playful sneer if Adam really believed that his father loved him that much, the student replied, “It depends on which day of the week it is”, to rounds of priceless laughter. Bre would be ‘Olúfunkẹ́, given by God to love’ and Trish would be ‘Àkànkẹ, a specially treasured one’. Kate wanted to be ‘Abiodun’ because she was born during Thanksgiving, and Andrew preferred ‘Ọlánrewájú’ for his ‘wealth keeps advancing’. Cassidy was ‘Títílayọ, the everlasting joy’, and Amber simply became ‘Fẹmi: love me’.
The teacher did not think much of his own language advantage either when the oral exercise in the Yorùbá alphabet began. “It would all be easy,” he thought. “It can’t be as bad as Russian, Chinese or Japanese where the visual cues to the language’s letters are never much help to the new speaker learning to speak or read.”
So he went to the chalk board, wrote out the twenty-five letters of the language alphabet, pointed at them from the top downwards, one at a time, and challenged —
“Say after me everyone, Ah!”
“Ẹ! As in Egg.”
Don’t pronounce it as it’s written. Not Jee as in Jesus, but Gee as in Geek. Think sounds, not letters.
A few random looks of misery.
“Can you all say Gbee, Gbee as in ‘Gbenga’.’”
“Noooo. What of ’kpee‘? Can anyone pronounce ’Kpangolo‘ or ‘Patapata’?”
He did not immediately despair. It’s not always as bad as it looks – or sounds – the first time. And surely, as he thought to himself afterwards, after two hours of practice with the “strange” consonants, it was going to be a lot more fun than he thought at the beginning.
The Third Class
By now they could all greet. By now they had mastered the basic expressions that pass across in-tent. By now, also, they could ask questions:
“Kíni orúkọ rẹ?” “Orúkọ mi ni…” “Orúkọ ọrẹ mi ni…” “Orúkọ bàbá mi ni…”
“Kíni èyí?” “Èyí ni bàtà.” “Èyí ni asọ.” “Èyí ni gègé.”
By now, they could count from one to ten in Yorùbá. By now, they could also express number.
“Ọmọ melòó lo ní?” “Mo ní ọmọ mẹta.”
“Asọ melòó lo ní? “Mo ní asọ méjì.”
“Àburò mélòó lo ní? Mi ò ní àbúrò kankan.”
Or express satisfaction with the teacher’s explanations:
“Sé ó yée yín?”
“Kò yé wa.”
“Ó yé wa.”
On Wednesday, Week 4 would be over, and they would have had seven classes, each with its own challenges. They had somehow managed to get over the pronunciation challenges, one syllable at a time. The difficulties now lay in recognising and being able to correctly pronounce tone marks. And could he blame them? It was relief enough for the class to know that there were authentic speakers of Yorùbá in Nigeria who could not stand tone marks as a concept nor correctly identify them when put on words either.
“It is often an insurmountable challenge for many,” the teacher assured them. “The challenge for us, though, is to become better than them. And better than them we shall be. We’ll take it one day at a time.”