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A recurring question in my mind every day I go to class to teach my students Yoruba is “What exactly can they do with this knowledge?” Surely, like Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “there is no knowledge that is not power,”  but when I look at these young students – the youngest of them being nineteen years – and look at the Yoruba language, I can’t help but wonder if there is anything particularly useful that they can do with their knowledge of it. The last few classes have featured questions and answers mainly about the people and cultural practices, as well as about language. So assuming that by the end of this semester, I am able to give them a basic knowledge, as well as give them sufficient motivation to learn more about the language, culture and people, then what?

Language is a medium of thought, but it’s also an abstract wealth, mostly without tangible value. An African language might be viewed with even more skepticism, especially from an American perspective. Besides the possibility of ending up like Austrian Suzanne Wenger in a Yoruba town with enormous artistic influence on a people’s belief, or as British Karin Barber in a University as a European authority on the language and grammar, what else is there to do with these little snippets of knowledge that we share every week in class? I cannot answer the question, and I would not be asking the students to do so.Yet.

We have learnt about Suzanne Wenger, Wole Soyinka, Karin Barber, Toyin Falola, and a few other literary figures. In the last class, I tried to dispel some more common genralizations about the people and perceptions. Students seem always to have new questions each time, and I love it. Had I seen that video of Chimamanda speaking at a Ted.com event, I might brought it along to class. I definitely will consider doing so in the next class, just after our test on Monday. I hope that in the long run, there is something of value being exchanged between us every time we gather in class to discuss.

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4 thoughts on “What Can We Do With Language?

  1. Thanks Uche,
    But of what immediate or long-term value is the knowledge of another person’s language, especially a language spoken so far away from us? That’s the question. What do you say?

    • I believe that speaking another language literally opens up a new spacein your brain. In oorder to learn to speak a new language really well, we have to open up our whole mentality to absorb this new experience, the new way of thinking that is implied in every language, the new culture, even the new way to gesticulate.

      I speak several languages and I know that my whole personality changes when I move from one language to another. Thus in a way I have a chance to be several different people at the same time. 🙂

      The world becomes so much richer and your very understanding of the world becomes so much more profound. It is exhilarating to meet a person from another part of the world and be able to speak to them not just in their own language but also from their own cultural, intellectual and emotional space.

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