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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 I of the interview. Part II will be posted next Wed
How did you find your way into linguistics?
I could say it’s serendipitous, but that would mean that all the building blocks set by parents, teachers, and other conditions around my upbringing played no part. That wouldn’t be true. With hindsight, it feels like there was an unconscious plan all along. As far back as I remember, I was always interested in languages, particularly in the tension between Yorùbá which I speak as a first language, and which we spoke at home, and English, which was spoken in school to the exclusion of anything other language. My interest wasn’t overt, and my first admission to the university was for a first degree in Theatre Arts, which I eventually turned down for Linguistics. Then, I had some misconceptions about what linguistics was about. Like many people, I thought that it would merely let me learn many new languages. After the first year as an undergrad, I knew better. I discovered phonetics, phonology, morphology, sociolinguistics, and syntax (which I didn’t particularly like). It was enchanting, and I didn’t want to go anywhere else.
How do you understand your background in linguistics as shaping what you do / how you do what you do?
Most of what has brought me satisfaction as an adult has come from work with languages, doing things I love with it. Understanding how language works, and how it influences society, has helped me better appreciate the world. Shortly after my undergrad, I got a Fulbright scholarship to teach Yorùbá at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville for a year. That was a fun and thrilling experience. Two years later, I got an MA in Linguistics/TESL from the same university.
My initial plan afterwards (besides getting into a PhD program) was to move to Rwanda, which had just shifted from French to English as its official language, to teach English. But I got a job at a high school in Lagos, Nigeria to do the same thing so I moved there instead in 2012. All the while, my interest and work in languages kept pushing me in productive and interesting directions.
In 2012-2014, I led an effort which successfully pressured Twitter to allow the platform be translated into Yorùbá. In 2015, I founded YorubaName.com. Later that year, I got a job at Google as a Speech Linguistics Project Manager to head their team working on speech synthesis for Nigerian English, a position I held for about year.
What does a typical day look like now?
Today, my day begins with a few hours of writing, before the house wakes up. I’m working on a collection of essays, a memoir, a book of interviews, and some academic papers.
Then, at 8, I help prepare my son to go to school (he’ll be three years old in a few days). When he’s out of the house, I do some more writing and reading. I’m a content provider on an international debating platform, so I put in some hours of work there. I also serve as the head lexicographer at YorubaName.com.
At around 2.30pm, I go to pick my son up from school. When he’s home, I can’t do much reading or writing, so I engage him around the house. Sometimes, that time allows me to read or do some work on the YorubaName project. Evening is for dinner with my wife and son. Occasionally, there is a little time for reading/writing before bed.
Can you give an example of a recent project?
In November 2016, I helped translate a short story Upright Revolution by the renowned African novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o into Yorùbá. More about that in these two recaps of Aké Festival 2016. It was a collaborative project that I enjoyed working on. I’m also working on a translation, into Yorùbá, of a Nigerian novel.
The YorubaName.com dictionary is an ongoing project that has also brought me satisfaction. It began as an undergraduate project but has now, with help from friends and colleagues, grown into a bigger one with about thirty volunteers around the world. It has got a lot of positive reviews, offline, and around the web, and that is exciting. We’re currently working on expanding that platform to include a full online dictionary of Nigerian languages (with audio), beginning with Yorùbá.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best thing about working as a linguist (whether full time or part time) is the thrill in learning new things about a language or about languages. I have learnt way more about Yorùbá in the last one year than I did in the many years before, and I’ve found ways to challenge and refine my thinking over a number of issues. It is also a field that has allowed me to be part of solutions to problems that affect a number of people, myself included. In June 2016, for instance, we released a free downloadable tone-marking keyboard software to allow people write in Yorùbá and Igbo online. That brought me a lot of satisfaction.
The worst part would be that people tend to be needlessly self-conscious about their grammar around me too often than necessary. I assume that this is not the worst thing that can happen to anyone.
What else do you do apart from linguistics?
Creative writing. I find literature stimulating, particularly creative non-fiction. I also read, and review, fiction. That is where I spend a lot of my free time. I was recently published in Literary Wonderlands (October, 2016), an anthology edited by Laura Miller, about creative works in sci-fi, speculative fiction, fantasy, and magical realism around the world. My entry was about Nnedi Okorafor, the only Nigerian in the list.
As a critic, I’ve given some attention towards the pervasive attitude of writing/publishing Nigerian words, in contemporary literature, without proper diacritics, when the same courtesy is usually afforded to languages like French or Swedish. It is one of the holdovers from colonialism which has denied Nigerian literature a dynamism expected from a country of so many languages. I’m hoping that my intervention makes some significant changes happen in the nearest future.
Sectors profiled in the “Profiles in Linguistics” series: 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.