Nigeria – when meaning is lost in translation

Language fascinates me, more so Nigeria many languages. I sometimes wonder how tough it must have been for our lawmakers. We do have a national language, English – for me that is when it gets trickier, for one word can be translated differently depending on individual region.

In **Chinua Achebe’s There was a Country, interesting that ‘ripe’ is used to describe kola nut readiness for harvesting. In Yoruba, we say ‘mature’

gbó – mature

pọ́n – ripe

In Yoruba, ‘ripe’ is used to describe mainly sweet fruits such as banana, orange, papaya etc. mostly fruits that change colour from green to yellow. Now I can see Chinua Achebe saying there is obvious discolouration in kola nut pod, suggesting it is ripe, hence the word ‘ripe’ was used. But because kola nut fruit itself is bitter, for the Yorubas, the slight change in pod colour is irrelevant.

It is a relief to know am not the only one confused about the difference between ‘ripe’ and ‘mature’ of fruits.

More interesting is the fact that we have national exams, how do we come to agreement of acceptable English translation for the same word? That must be a real battle for the exams coordinators, or unfair mark downs for students depending on the markers’ understanding of the word.

In the late 1980s, there was a pilot project going around,  the idea was that all Nigerian secondary school students  must learn another Nigerian language different from their local area – all subjects except local language is taught in English.

That was a brilliant idea.

My area being Yoruba had a choice between Igbo and Hausa to start with, in the end we were given a Hausa teacher. The idea was that at least one year of Hausa and another year of Igbo during the years in secondary school, so we get introduced to the basics of other Nigerian languages.

The pilot study lasted for a year, that much was true. Our teacher was a young man from Sokoto, only in the southwest because of his new teaching appointment.

The study was for just my year group, I was in senior secondary school one with 4 classes, at least 30 students each, myself and mates benefitted from one year Hausa lesson. I really enjoyed the class. Till today, whenever opportunity arises, I use the few words I learned as ‘ice breaker’ to ‘show off’ my knowledge of Hausa or lack of it.

Coincidently, years later I ended up living in the same house with my then Hausa teacher, Mr Sule. It was only then that I got to know him a bit better. The study had a rocky start but there were positive feedback to show there is a need to make language compulsory in schools, however, further funding met huge resistance from our lawmakers. Mr Sule is now a Policeman.

Today, learning other Nigeria language different from the local one is not mandatory in schools. For the most part, Yoruba language in Yoruba schools and vice versa.

One language that most of the schools across board especially in the southwest learn is French – I wonder if we look back and take notes, would we choose Hausa, Igbo or French?


 ** There was a Country, Pg 10

Categories: Africa, Education, Nigeria

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

19 replies

  1. And the sad thing is that Yoruba and Igbo languages are going extinct. My children can hardly speak Yoruba and their Igbo friends can hardly speak Igbo.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing so many dialects and “languages” Very interesting! I guess in America we can say southern western eastern northern and in my case Hawaiian dialects, with so many words meaning different things depending on where you are raised. Just so interesting. I am so grateful love is a universal language in all of our cultures!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. gbó – mature

    pọ́n – ripe

    (Hausa) nuna – done

    interesting eh?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey you!

      Do you say ‘nuna’ for kola nut to mean kola nut mature?

      You don’t have kola nut trees in the far north say Kano, Sokoto etc, do you? But I know you eat great deal of it, probably more than us? Fair assumption?


      • VERY Fair & accurate assumption. I don’t think there is any group of people in the world that ‘Chew’ kola nuts like the Hausas. We claim to just chew it & not eat it, which is true because few swallow the mash after draining the juice.

        We almost don’t grow it, which is surprising because the soil & climate here grows everything from Apples to strawberries but somehow not Palm fruits & kola nuts. Even some variety of Cocoa & Ginseng grows in the north I have been told

        Liked by 1 person

        • Incredible – lots of agriculture opportunity to explore! Uhmn can grow apples there but why do we import from South Africa? – ha, ignore that question! 🙂

          Didn’t know you don’t swallow kola nut, I guess by chewing you have extracted the stimulant. All goes in my area, ‘pleasure’ is in the swallowing :).


  4. Here in South Africa there are 11 official languages! They’ve Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu! But they understand each other 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Whoa! That’s plentiful for such a small country! Good for them, I’d say. I can see how it will be necessary for one person to speak at least 3 or 4 languages.

      Languages are beautiful, it will do us lots of good in Nigeria if we have English and the other three major languages as official, in the process, each person likely to pick up at least 3 different languages rather than 2 we currently have. The more the better.


    • Guilhem…My cousin is married to a delightful South African lady (Result of his dad working around those parts for just under a decade) You know what you guys call Languages, in Nigeria we call Dialects. Counting those here, then we just might have close to 700 ‘languages’ in Nigeria.

      Liked by 2 people

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