In the academic year 2019/20, Oluwatoyin Olanipekun served as Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) and taught Yoruba to a growing number of students at the university. Over the course of the fall and winter semesters, Olanipekun has seen interest and engagement from students grow, as they come to realize the significance of both the language as well as its potential to open new doors to cultural knowledge. Starting with 5 students in the 2019 Fall semester, the second semester of Yoruba in the 2020 Winter semester drew in an additional five students, all of these heritage speakers with some prior knowledge of the language.

ASC and DAAS will again be hosting an FLTA for Yoruba in the 2020/21 academic year, who will assist with the teaching of Introductory Yoruba while Intermediate Yoruba will be taught by a newly recruited lecturer for Yoruba. To celebrate the fact that the Yoruba program at U-M is off to a strong start, ASC interviewed Olanipekun, the first-ever Yoruba instructor on our campus. 

Olanipekun’s approach to teaching Yoruba entails building cultural aspects of the language and its acquisition into the classroom. Nigerian music, movies, cooking, and fashion are all mediums through which to simultaneously engage with language and culture—two categories that Olanipekun explains are completely intertwined. 

An example of this is the way in which a culture of respect relates to both the people and the language of Yoruba. Olanipekun explains this when she says ‘respect is a bedrock of the culture, and this is reflected in the language. The cultural interplay of respect is reflected in the language itself.’ Learning Yoruba, therefore, opens up the possibility of understanding how studying languages opens up so much more than just the language itself. One cannot ‘learn a language without learning the background of the communities involved,’ says Olanipekun, who is proud to be from Nigeria and bring these insights on Yoruba to the University of Michigan.

Olanipekun discussed how teaching Yoruba at U-M has opened up important cultural discussions with students. Her Yoruba classes included an analysis of cultural practices that students might have otherwise been unfamiliar with, such as social practices like tribal marks which act as markers of beautification and identification. Other topics approached by Olanipekun include modes of cultural expression such as flamboyant headgear and the importance of religion to Yoruba and Nigeria.

In order to get students more immersed in the language and culture, Olanipekun, with ASC’s support, collaborated with the Yoruba program at Michigan State University (MSU).  She worked with the MSU’s FLTA, Olamide Eniola, and brought students together from both institutions, thus allowing students to interact with two native Yoruba speakers during the course.

Being the first to teach Yoruba at the University of Michigan, Olanipekun has noticed the dearth of online teaching materials on the topic. She sees this as both a problem and an opportunity, as she sees herself developing online materials to help bring Yoruba to more people. During her time as an FLTA, she has begun to address this lacuna by building presentations and resources which will hopefully be made available online in the near future. This forms part of Olanipekun’s desire to develop and facilitate Yoruba instruction in the future – a process that she finds inherent value in. 

Reflecting on her time in Ann Arbor, Olanipekun expresses satisfaction at the wonderful people and connections she’s made, specifically because of how “open U-M and Ann Arbor are to everybody no matter the person or interests.” 

She hopes that more people learn Yoruba because “it helps build a connection to Africa.” Olanipekun emphasized this at the end of the interview, when she said “If you can talk Yoruba you will be treated as less of a foreigner, in Nigeria, Benin, Togo,  and throughout the world.” 

Olanipekun is proud of the progress made by all ten of the students in the Yoruba course this year, which they show off in the video. She hopes that many more students (undergraduate and graduate) will take advantage of studying Yoruba I (Introductory) or Yoruba II (Intermediate) next year.