Opinion: The pains and joys of learning Yoruba (or any language)

For the past seven weeks I have been engaged in an intensive language program, studying Yoruba for eight hours a day. I have studied and speak six other languages, including Swahili and Arabic, and I can say with complete certainty Yoruba is by far the most challenging and difficult of them all.

You might be thinking, “yor-a-who?” Yoruba is spoken in Southwest Nigeria, Benin and Togo by up to 60 million people and is widely considered the language of the African diaspora in the New World, as it is maintained in liturgical languages of the syncretic Afro-Caribbean religions of Cuba, Brazil, Trinidad and Haiti.

If you know the expression “bad juju,” you already know some Yoruba! Some scholars even assert that our “uh huh,” which can mean “yes” or “no” depending on intonation, derives from West African languages like Yoruba, brought here by the slaves who built America.

As evidenced in “uh huh,” Yoruba is a tonal language, like Chinese (and the majority of the world’s languages), in that changes in pitch change meaning. For instance,“ọkọ” can mean garden hoe, husband, field or sword, so you have to be extra careful how you pronounce the word when you are saying what you want.

Moreover, there are two sounds, represented by and

, which are the sounds [ɡ] and [b], and [k] and [p], respectively, pronounced simultaneously. It ain’t easy y’all.

As such you can imagine the frustration, but moreover the laughter, of my classmate Ayò̩délé and I as we tried to pick up this difficult language!

The first day of class we had to choose Yoruba names, but within Yoruba culture it is believed that your name is chosen for you after your birth based on the circumstances of your birth and the situation of your family at the time. My name is Òjó, a boy born with the umbilical cord around his neck, and my teacher’s name is Ké̩hìndé, the second-born of twins. My classmate’s name means “joy has come into the house,” meaning her birth brought happiness to her clan.

Though the grammar is tricky and very dissimilar from that of English, the benefits of learning a vehicle to understand the Yoruba culture, engage with Yoruba people in Nigeria and in the diaspora are immeasurable.

In linguistics, many believe every language represents a distinct view of reality that can only be fully glimpsed in that specific language, hence it is inherently worthwhile to learn different languages.


So, I do not say “I’m hungry,” but rather “ebí ń pa mí,” “hunger kills me,” and likewise “inú mi dùn,” “my stomach is sweet” to say “I’m happy.” Idiomatic expressions give a small and valuable glimpse into the reality that another language entails, one that is distinct from ours but just as valuable.

Furthermore, every language affords the poetic and philosophical tradition of proverbs, such as the Yoruba saying, “When a tiger approaches you cautiously it’s not because he’s shy.”

As such, given the difficulties but also the sublime joy it is to be able to speak to another in his or her mother tongue, which has always seemed to me a kind of magical power, I exhort all of you to pick up that book, take that class and learn a foreign language.

Though for a long time the foreign language learner is relegated to feeling paralyzed and absurd, there are few things more gratifying than finally accomplishing the arduous task and glorious feat of incorporating the music and beauty of another language into your personal repertoire.



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