Why I’m Learning West African Languages… And You Should, Too!

1st August 2020

Whether you want to learn Twi to connect with Ghana, or Yoruba to understand Nollywood movies, learning a West African language will change your life.

More people are learning foreign languages than ever before. And thanks to globalization, access to media from abroad, and the myriad of language learning apps, it’s never been easier. You can even learn fictional languages such as Klingon and High Valyrian.

But there’s a discrepancy between the influx of language learners and the diversity of our language selections. With so many language options available, why are most language enthusiasts limiting their options to Western and a few East Asian languages?

Regional West African languages and dialects aren't discussed in polyglot communities anywhere near as frequently as their Western and East Asian counterparts.

The continent of Africa is virtually unrecognized and underappreciated in terms of cultural significance. There are over one thousand spoken languages throughout the entire continent, yet with the exception of Swahili and Arabic, they’re barely acknowledged.

It's time for that to change.

How I started learning West African languages

I didn't grow up expecting to be a polyglot. I began my language learning journey because it was a high school requirement. Like most secondary schools in the States, I was only offered the choice between Spanish and French. So I learned both.

It was through this exposure that I developed a love for homemade carnitas and French pastries. I fangirled over Stromae and learned to Salsa Dance. Because that's what happens when you learn a language. You also learn and grow to appreciate the cultures that speak them.

My experience learning Yoruba (one of the official languages of Nigeria), Krio (the lingua franca of Sierra Leone), and Twi (one of the most commonly spoken languages throughout Ghana) was the exact opposite of how I picked up Spanish and French.

I had fallen in love with the cultures and their people long before the thought of learning the languages had ever crossed my mind! By the time I began learning how to speak them, I was already immersed in their world. Learning the languages allowed me to dive in even deeper.

I'm currently focused on learning Yoruba and Twi. Here are a few reasons why you should consider learning them, too!

Throughout the last decade, Nigeria and Ghana have been making their mark on the world and there's no sign of them slowing down.

Nigeria is making an impact on the world

According to the Pew Research Center, there are over 200 million people living in Nigeria alone and there are estimated to be over 700 million Nigerians in the country by 2100. That would make it the third most populous country in the world. And is definitely a reason to bump Yoruba (or Igbo and Hausa) up your list of languages to learn.

By the way, Nigerians aren't just increasing in numbers in their home country. There are currently over 300,000 Nigerians living in the United States and over 200,000 Nigerians residing within the UK. Not to mention the thousands of Nigerian people in China, Australia, and nearly every other part of the globe.

One of the most significant ways in which Nigeria has been making an impact on the world is through the entertainment industry. Although Nigerian pop culture has existed as long as pop culture has been a "thing", recently, it has been gaining momentum and reaching more people than ever before.

For example, international streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are now offering Nollywood (Nigeria's film industry) movies for the masses. They are hilarious, dramatic, and sure to leave you satisfied.

But perhaps the most well-known way that Nigeria has been sharing its culture with the world is through the beloved genre of music better known as Afrobeats. It's catchy, impossible not to dance to, and is changing the music landscape. Many Afrobeats artists are becoming international household names and collaborating with pop stars such as Drake and Beyoncé. Music festivals such as London's Wireless Fest and Indio, California's Coachella are now including top Afrobeats artists such as Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, and Mr. Eazi.

We couldn't ignore the increasing popularity of the Nigerian entertainment industry if we tried. We are better off hopping on board this cultural phenomenon. I promise you'll have the time of your life - even if your legs do ache from dancing too much!

And what about Ghana? 

The attraction of Ghana

While Ghana doesn't have as many citizens as Nigeria, it’s making its presence known in a more political (and geographical) way. Rather than extending its culture outward, it is beckoning people towards it.

Ghana is quickly becoming a tourist hub and expat capital of the world. This is largely due to efforts made by Ghana's President Nana Akofu-Addo. The promotion of Ghana's nightlife and natural scenery by influencers on Instagram and YouTube vloggers have contributed to the increasing interest in the region as well.

In 2018, President Nana Akofu-Addo launched the Year of Return initiative for 2019. 2019 marked the 400-year anniversary of the time that the first enslaved Africans made it to Jamestown, Virginia. Along with paying homage to our ancestors, the Year of Return's goals were to make Ghana a top travel destination for African-Americans and other Africans of the Diaspora. It also served as a way to encourage members of the African Diaspora to invest in and settle in Ghana.

End-of-the-year events such as Afrochella and Essence magazine's Full Circle Festival not only attracted foreigners, they completely dominated the social media landscape. In December alone, nearly 100,000 people flew into Ghana's capital city, Accra, and you can relive the experience through thousands of tourist videos online! 

A quick YouTube search will show you why and just how quickly Accra is becoming one of the party capitals of Africa, if not the world.

Despite the fact that Ghana is gaining more international attention, the country itself is not at all new to foreign visitors. In fact, the University of Ghana has been bringing international students to Accra for years now, welcoming students from partner institutions such as U.C. Berkeley, Yale, and Cambridge University. 

Where should you start if you want to learn a West African Language? 

Although more people are being exposed to and becoming interested in West African cultures, most mainstream learning apps have been slow to jump on the bandwagon. However, an increase in demand for languages such as Yoruba, Twi, and Wolof can change this.

As far as I know, Memrise is the only mainstream language-learning platform that offers West African languages such as Twi, Hausa, Soninke, and Mandinka.

You can find some courses here: 

Twi

Hacking Akan-Twi with AUDIO - by kingsela

Hausa

Teach Yourself Hausa - by lj19787

Soninke

Soninke - by soomakebe

Mandinka

Mandinka Vocabulary - by AdrienneS

Wolof

Wolof basics - by shona.mcld

Udemy also offers a variety of language courses taught by reputable professors. Learn Yoruba Language, Learn Akan Twi - An Interactive Twi Video course, and The Complete Igbo Language Course are great places to start. 

While there are some language-specific apps out there, many of them are still in the early stages of development. They could use all of the help and feedback that they can get, so if you’re learning a West African language and you find people making resources, do what you can to show them your support.

For those of us on budgets, there’s a wealth of free, high-quality content available on YouTube.

Here are some examples: 

Yoruba

Yorùbá Lessons with Adérónké̩

Blessing Kayode

Twi

LearnAkan.Com

MissGoldTwi

Igbo

LearnIgbo

IGBO RELOADED with Ogochukwu

Fulani

Souley O

Ga

MawieG

Language-specific Facebook groups can also be a valuable resource, so be sure to check them out, too!

If you’re struggling to find resources, you can also check out this post for tips on learning a language that doesn’t have many courses or textbooks available.

Learn the language, learn the culture

It's 2020. Our identities and perspectives no longer have to be confined to our nationalities or passport countries. We’re global citizens and it's time we start acting like it. The lens through which we view the world can't be as narrow as it once was. We owe it to ourselves and to society at large to be as informed and as expansive in our understanding of other cultures as possible. Engaging with and learning their language is a great place to start.

Part of being global citizens is appreciating and respecting different groups of people. Although there’s a rise in popularity of Nigerian and Ghanaian cultures, I want to make it clear that a nationality, a heritage, a culture can never be a trend. The cultures within these nationalities existed long before you and I were aware of them and will continue to exist long after.

It is important that we engage with West African languages and cultures from a place of reverence. Rather than simply listening to the music or engaging in debates about which country has the best Jollof rice, take the time to learn about their people, their histories, their values, and their intricacies.

Cultures are not commodities to be tried on and then discarded when the next "big thing" comes along. They consist of real people with real stories and lived experiences. The way that we consume their media, understand with their heritage, and engage with their people can have either negative or positive consequences on their quality of life and position in society. So be mindful, be intentional, be curious.

Do something different. Learn a West African language today.

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