The teacher did not think much of his own language advantage when he entered the second class where his foreign language students waited expectantly, but he did make space for a few discouraging responses that might come from those who had found the first class rather intimidating. It was never an easy thing learning a new language, not in the least the one with tone marks, subdots, proverbs and really strange-sounding consonants. But then, when he found that most of the students had already chosen their favourite Yoruba names by the begining of class on Wednesday, he almost hopped 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 Yorubanized, if only by name. Students had gone online to find their unique names, it’s 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 traveller 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 “Babáfẹmi” 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 that “It depends on which day of the week it is.” to rounds of priceless hysterical responses. Bre would be “Olúfunkẹ, 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.” (Hey Steve Marth, what’s yours?)
The teacher did not think much of his own language advantage when the oral exercise in the Yoruba alphabets began. “It would all be easy,” he must have 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.” And 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!”
“E!” As in Egg.
Now, say “Gee!” 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”?”
The traveller 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 a bit afterwards after two hours of practice with the new “strange” consonants, it was going to be a lot funner than he thought at the begining.