Kola Túbọ́sún

Meet Kola Túbọ́sún, The Cultural Activist And Linguist Fighting For The Preservation Of African Languages

When I was way younger, my grandma always loved me more than my cousins because I was the ‘elite’ one who spoke English like the ‘Oyinbo’ people. Growing up, watching western cartoons that spoke only ‘English’ and trying my best to copy each character’s accent.

I was made to feel like speaking my native language was ‘razz’, the environment was set-up in a way that speaking my language made me less in society. I was praised when I spoke the colonial tongue ‘English’, which is Nigeria’s official-unofficial language. If you lived in Nigeria as a 90’s kid these are probably things you can relate to.

Years later, a much older and conscious me laughs at the stupidity of the propaganda that was my childhood. I’m perplexed at how much distaste my environment made me feel about speaking my own language, and experiencing the full spectrum of my culture. Now I know it’s very important to know where we are from.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture are like a tree without roots.

Marcus Garvey

Kola Túbọ́sún, language activist, teacher and writer is one of the individuals fighting to make sure the preservation of language and culture in Nigeria is not forgotten. His success so far has earned him a number of nominations and awards, including being the first blogger to be shortlisted for the African journalist award with CNN for his article first published on KTravula. He also worked with BBC Academy to help localize the Journalistic Style Guide of the BBC into Igbo, Yoruba, and Nigerian Pidgin, ahead of its maiden broadcast in those Nigerian languages and he founded the “Yorùbá Names Project” at YorubaName.com as an effort to document all names in Yoruba in an accessible multimedia format.

Kola Túbọ́sún was raised in the largest geographic city in Nigeria, Ibadan, capital of Oyo State. Born into a family with five other siblings by his poetic father, Túbọ́sún Ọládàpọ̀ and his mother who was a homemaker and caterer. His father’s influence in his life exposed him to the Yoruba language through books and music, many of which his father produced himself.

He believes he found himself through his father’s perspectives; pointing out one major difference from his father, of course, was that he wasn’t an activist like him, “When I look at my dad’s career, I think of so many times it seems I also did so much to run away from him, at some point, I tried to imitate him by writing in Yoruba when I was younger, although I wasn’t successful, it was just a phase. There was also a phase I think of when I look back, that I didn’t want anything to do with what he had done; one of the reasons why my name is Kola Túbọ́sún instead of Oladapo…other than for ease of conversation, when I realized I was going into writing I did not want to be under the shadow of his own work, although he wrote in Yoruba and I did in English.”

As he recalls his childhood, keen on the fact that his knowledge on culture and language was more as a way of life, discovering soon after that it was not the way of life for many other families.

He attended all three levels of education in Ibadan and received his first degree from the University of Ibadan. He received a second degree from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in the United States.

When I ask Túbọ́sún about his emergence into language advocacy, he talks about his days in university, and noticing something strange when he used Microsoft, local names like his were underlined but not with foreign names; it bothered him more when he could not type his name with tone marks. His first productive response to this problem was during his undergraduate project titled ‘The Audio Dictionary of Yoruba Names’, which was an audio version dictionary of Yoruba names with accurate pronunciation.

In 2009, he taught Yoruba at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville until 2010, when he returned to Nigeria from the US to marry his now wife. He got a job teaching English language at White-Sands Secondary school, Lagos, Nigeria by a friend.

It’s funny to think he taught English and not Yoruba Language At White-Sands, when I ask him why, he says “I’m not a Yoruba linguist, it’s just something I’m competent in because I grew up around it and I paid attention to a number of things, from conversations to arguments; it is also something I enjoy. My masters were in linguistics and teaching English as a second language (TESL) and my undergrad was also in linguistics so I was more equipped to teach English language.” 

He certainly made his mark with the school and the students as he introduced the SAIL, which was a publication of students’ literary work judged by writer friends’ of Túbọ́sún. The experience according to him expanded his knowledge on the Nigerian education systems’ approach to teaching English in schools.

Finding His Voice

In 2011, the popular social media application known as Twitter began translating the app into different languages, this prompted Kola’s interest in questioning why there were no African languages involved in the development. As a reaction, he and his apprentices dedicated a day where they all tweeted in Yoruba language as a protest for inclusion. Twitter responded to Mr. Túbọ́sún that evening assuring him that something would be done–nothing was done–Túbọ́sún & his friends repeated this for two more years before Twitter actually did anything.

From that moment he became more interested in African language and linguistics, “Since then I’ve been more convinced for a reason to do all I can to help not just Yoruba but all the African Languages survive on the internet; I mean in real Life people speaking language to their children will be the biggest way of moving language but online, where I actually have the aptitude and the attention of people; if we are able to create spaces of opportunities and empowerment for those languages online, then this might also be a complementary way of helping them evolve and survive and thrive,”

His Work with Google

Kola Túbọ́sún began working with Google in 2015; he believes this was because of his previous involvement with The-Yoruba-Name-Project, text-to-speech and specifically teaching English to students; a job where he witnessed the confusion students face being forced to write in British English but being exposed to Nigerian English for the majority of their day.

His one-year lasting contract was also his first official job as a linguist. At Google, his project was aimed at maintaining the suitable vowels and consonants used with Nigerian English. He left in 2016 but returned to the company in February 2019 as the Project Manager for Natural language processing tasks in African languages.

Túbọ́sún’s team at Google Nigeria was behind the Nigerian English voice/accent on Google platforms. The voice was launched in July 2019. His collaboration at Google was helpful in getting Nigerian language diacritics into GBoard, and also correcting the mistranslation of the Esu, the Yoruba trickster god, on Google Translate. He has also worked with Google Arts & Culture on some of its exhibits in Nigeria and Kenya.

“I remember when I was being employed by Google, I was being asked one time if I think Nigerians would like a Google voice in their accent and the answer I gave was that it depends; you will find Nigerians who think this is a terrible idea because they don’t like things to sound local…they want to sound like foreigners, they like it like that; but that notwithstanding, it is important work and it will have an impact on people who need it the most”

In general, do you feel like you have support from Nigerians?

Kola Túbọ́sún: I am satisfied by the response I’ve gotten from the people who value my work.

Is it easier advocating for Yoruba and Nigerian English 5-10 years ago compared to now?

Kola Túbọ́sún: I am not focused on whether I can convince people, because I got here not by trying to change the world but by changing the system by what I can do and what I have in my mind as a human being. I have found that it has been easier for me now, maybe it is because of the visibility or the contacts I’ve made over the years, but if there are things that I think I can change I go ahead and change it, and if I can’t I find the people who can and start working on the process to change it. Earlier in the days, I would rant on Twitter; why is this not like this, why is this not like this.

What is the biggest issue you see with language and the misplacement of Nigerian identity?

Kola Túbọ́sún: We have an issue in Nigeria with language duality, there are so many… 400 languages. Because every time you talk about language categorization the first question everyone says is why not 2 or 10 languages and how you’re dividing the country to pieces and I don’t have the answer yet as to how we involve all the languages, because the fact is some languages will not make it, but it should not be because we didn’t try, but because we did all we could and didn’t succeed.

You’ve had an interesting take on Twitter, involving multilingualism in Nigeria and how it can improve innovation in the country especially in the northern states; What’s your argument to why this is a good idea?

Kola Túbọ́sún: People who learn in a language they’re most comfortable with tend to do better and have a better educational outcome. When I heard they were translating chemistry into Hausa I thought okay that is a good idea, although I wish it did not start from a university-level; obviously not for everybody who lives in Nigeria or Northern Nigeria, because there are people with middle class or a bilingual upbringing where English is equally as helpful to them as Hausa so they have no problem, but there are people who have been left behind and people who have been invested in education will understand every opportunity to help bring equality in the kind of accessibility to knowledge.

Túbọ́sún revealed that for 2020 he intends to document his journey through linguistics challenges, experiences and opportunities for other prospectives.

Adaobi Ajegbo

Journalist and entrepreneur. there's not much to me honestly, I love money and I love to write x.

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