Tuesday 8 March 2022

A review of language tutoring in my experience

Speaking Yorùbá with pride

Watching a video clip on Facebook and later shared on WhatsApp from the BBC Yorùbá website of the Portuguese-born Tiago Isola speaking Yorùbá had me thinking of my experience language teaching through the years. [BBC Yoruba: Tiago Isola, akẹ́kọ̀ọ́ Fásitì Ibadan]

Tiago Isola arrived in Nigeria with his mother who was part of a cultural exchange programme with the Oyo kingdom at the age of 10 and has immersed himself in the Yorùbá culture, language, foods, and practices, he appears quite somewhat integrated, and his command of the language is quite well above average. He speaks with pride of his knowledge of Yorùbá and I am sure from his international travel would be a good Portuguese and English speaker too.

I was a foreigner too

I was born an Englishman with a Brummie accent from the West Midlands, my first language and mother tongue is English, and whilst there was some Yorùbá spoken at home, it was never part of our regular conversation, My parents conversed more with me in English, though less so with my siblings. My mother is a polyglot with an ear for languages, my father, much less so, struggled with even Pidgin English, it just did not sound right when he tried.

On returning to Nigeria, we lived in the north for just over 6 years, in that time, between Kaduna and Jos, I picked up some Hausa, read a bit of it, even attended the ECWA church where Hausa was the spoken language of instruction. I still get by on what I learnt in the 1970s, with the occasional opportunity to practice when I meet Hausa speakers.

Getting serious with Yorùbá

It was when I was 10 years old that my mother acquired Yorùbá primer Aláwiyé (To speak to comprehend) books to practice the fundamentals of the language. However, it did not get immersive until I had a psycho-paranormal encounter for which the apparent remedy was reading the Psalms multiple times to cups, bottles, or buckets of water from which I drank or bathed to ward off evil spirits. She compelled me to read the Psalms in Yorùbá, it cultivated my proficiency in the language.

However, before that, I had no serious language teaching apart from standard English reading, spelling, comprehension, and composition lessons. In the fifth class in primary school, I found a basic French-language book in the cupboards and began to teach myself French, not in the pronunciation as I had no guidance, but in knowing the words and the meanings, I did not get very far.

Remembering sadistic language tutors

At secondary school, apart from the English teachers, the other language teachers were basically sadists, quick to punish but slow to impart or enthuse us in their subjects. Mrs Odutuyo could well have been high up in the ranks of the Spanish Inquisition, she conjured up such inhumane punishments, the thought of what she got some of us to do still makes me quiver. She taught Yorùbá and it was a chore. I never passed a Yorùbá test in school, but I mastered the use of accents and diacritical marks, which has served me well until today.

In Form 2, Mr Okonji was the French teacher on secondment from the National Youth Corp Service, French could have been a joy to learn, but he had no wherewithal to make it accessible. What he mastered to the level of genius or ogre, if you prefer was the wielding of the birching cane, going through the classes urging ‘Study-Study’ telling us to lie forward onto our desks whilst he carved welts on our backs.

I always got a language waiver

When we came to Form 3 and we had a better French teacher in class, we were nowhere useful enough for her to lift to any standard, we just trundled through the year expectant of the moment to drop the subject, which I did in Form 4, apart from the compulsory English language that I usually scraped a pass on, as I did not exert myself academically to achieve distinctions, and did the bare minimum that was asked for, I have never had to prove my standard of English as I am a native speaker.

After secondary school, we had some formal English lectures as part of our engineering courses, I always thought a good command of language was essential to being able to take projects from idea, through conception and implementation, to a conclusion and full successful commissioning. I have always priced the need for quality communication, and it has helped me through my career. As for the lecturers, they were poor bordering on abysmal, one took to sesquipedalianism for no other purpose than to impress than educate, I was far from taken by the superfluity of vacuity.

Contrasting language tutors

It was not until 1999 that I took another formal language class and that was German, the lady teaching us in a further education school carried us along and of all my language teachers, she was the very best. Every waking hour, I was playing back German language tapes, brushing up my German and looking for opportunities to use it. At that point, I was also looking to emigrate to live and work in Germany, I ended up in the Netherlands instead.

I enrolled on a Dutch learning programme organised by my employer, and it probably was the worst decision many of us made. The teacher whose business was predicated on providing language classes to blue-chip companies got comfortable with those who had a better grasp of the language and left the rest of us behind, we became disillusioned and dropped out of the class. To my shame, I ended up living in the Netherlands as an Englishman abroad, barely able to get by in Dutch, though not a complete novice.

I am for more language learning

It is likely, I would find myself learning Afrikaans and Ndebele, it would be down to first my enthusiasm and then the quality and ability of the teacher to impart the knowledge in a beneficial way. When I reflect on my use of language, I am quite proud of my mastery of the Yorùbá language, it is challenging at times, but it is one of the richest modes of expression.

I can also be quite purist in speaking Yorùbá, preferring to speak entirely in one language rather than mixing languages. I converse more with my parents in Yorùbá now, however, especially when it comes to my father, English presents the essential mode of address when the power distance index requires the delivery of some hard and difficult things that genuflection in Yorùbá tradition would frown upon.

As Tiago Isola has suggested, we need to give our children a good grounding in the mastery of all languages spoken, giving just as many resources to Yorùbá as we do the command of the English language. On this, I would say, we need to speak Yoruba beyond the rudimentary street talk, with the deployment of fables, poetry, proverbs, and sayings, finding innovative and expressive ways to promote the language before it falls into disuse out of negligence.

Tiago Isola’s Instagram page

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