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Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a linguist, writer, and teacher based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is best known for his work in mother tongue education and the interaction of language with technology. He is a Fulbright Fellow (Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, 2009) and recipient of the Premio Ostana Special Prize for Mother Tongue Literature 2016.
As we explore his path, Kola paints a picture of his life and advocacy spanning the fields of education, technology, literature, journalism, and linguistics.
Below is Part II of the interview with Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún. Click here for Part I.
How did you get started on your path? How did you get to what you are doing now?
I remember being convinced that I could have a career centred on the practical application of languages when, in 2006, I was commissioned to help localize T9 (now called Nuance), the predictive text input software into Yorùbá. I’d just finished from the university then and was just starting my mandatory national youth service. The excitement and exposure from that experience, as a twenty-five year old graduate pushed me ahead with great momentum. For the rest, I blame a series of interconnected but timely coincidences.
How have you chosen which opportunities to pursue when?
I think that raising a family can have tremendous impact on one’s attitude to life and career. Now, I have to prioritize projects that bring both professional and financial rewards. When I was single, I was freer to do things just because it felt good. I’ve also been lucky to have a good work-life balance, so it evens out in the end. But then, I did take a high school teaching job which paid very little, for three years, because I enjoyed doing it, and because I have a working and supportive wife.
Can you give an example of a skill or ability that you have used to show an employer how you would be suited to the tasks/duties/responsibilities of the job?
Competence in at least two languages, I’ve been told, was an asset for my role at Google. So was my (however elementary) knowledge of coding and software development. I’m currently learning Python. I assume, however, that being personable and reasonable will open doors everywhere — this said without claiming either quality one way or the other.
What aspects of your previous experience have been most broadly applicable professionally?
Most employers want someone that has done some project management in a high stakes environment. That experience is usually transferable to most departments or companies, so it’s a valuable one to have. But broadly, facility and competence with technological tools are also assets almost constantly in demand in the world today.
How do you tend to find job opportunities?
Since 2006, I have worked as a freelance translator between Yorùbá and English. I am signed up to a number of translation agencies online so I am notified when there are relevant job opportunities. I am also part of some associations where such relevant information is disseminated. Networking helps.
What resources would you share with someone who is just starting out on this career path?
If your interest is in translation, I’ll recommend TranslatorsCafe, a database of over 1300 translation agencies and freelance translators. I’ll also recommend SIL and IPA, two international organisations providing resources for linguists around the world.
Practices: Networking – how / where is it done in your field?
There are associations. A notable one is the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, which I’ve just discovered. In Nigeria, I participate in the activities of the Linguistics Association of Nigeria and somewhat, the Nigerian Academy of Letters. I am a moderator on their Facebook pages. I am a distant member of the West African Language Society as well, through work and collaboration with the department of linguistics at the University of Ibadan. Just recently, I participated in the forming of a new association to look out for the interests of professional translators around Nigeria.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to create opportunities for themselves as a linguist?
I will say, specifically for an African, that there are enormous opportunities in the diversity and multiplicity of our languages, so start where you are. We need good and competent translators in each of our hundreds of languages, and we need most, if not all, of these languages, to survive into the technological age. This can only happen if there are people of will and passion willing to do what is necessary to make it happen.
People would typically ask me, while I was in the university, “What can you do with linguistics anyway?” A short answer now will be “You can work at Google!”A longer one: “You will be able to do interesting things with languages and technology, and might change the world. Learning a new language (which isn’t the primary work of linguists anyway) has a way of re-wiring your brain, allowing it to do much more, and to see society in a totally unique way. Advances in language technology, which is within the purview of linguists, will create new opportunities in the future for more and more people in various fields.”
What emerging trends do you see in your field/ changes that will impact this work in future?
I see a lot of opportunities in Artificial Intelligence for African languages. Most AIs now are created to serve the big languages which, I assume, is good for business in the large global markets. But in the future, companies will have to think about those people who don’t speak English at all or as a first language, but who must also interact with technology, in order to target their products towards them. Siri in Yorùbá, anyone?
If my grandfather, who doesn’t speak English, can use an ATM because he can control it with voice prompts in Yorùbá, that is one more convert to the power of technology. But even if we can get our GPSes to correctly pronounce a Yorùbá or Edo or Igbo street name, we would have moved the needle a little bit, and that isn’t insignificant.
I’m also interested in ways we can influence educational policy (or contemporary language attitudes in Nigeria and around the continent) with knowledge from linguistics and technology. There are plenty opportunities to be explored there.
Where do you see yourself in this future?
I hope to be here working with, and participating in, efforts to improve language technology in African languages, through lexicography and documentation, and helping to make technology localized to our historically underserved populations. I also hope to continue to work in education, through private and public initiatives. Our educational policy in Nigeria is in need of a lot of upgrade. I’m interested in the ways that my work intersects with this field and how I can join in efforts to bring mother tongue education back into its rightful place in early childhood education. I am also interested in web orthography — the way our languages can function on the internet, in writing, to carry the culture into the future.
Thank you Kola for sharing your thoughts, experience, and perspective. This has been a most inspiring look into tremendously important work!
Want to read more career paths? Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series include: Corporate Social Responsibility, Healthcare Communications, Library Science, Knowledge Management, Naming, Non-Profit Communications, Program Evaluation, Publishing, Social Media Marketing,Tech, User Experience Research, Training and Facilitation and many more!
If you would like to recommend someone (including yourself) for a future profile, please contact Career Linguist.