Kofoworola Oyeleye is the creator of the award winning Anilingo app which teaches African languages to children through cartoons, games, songs and storybooks. Through language she aims to reconnect them to their culture and instil a sense of pride in their identity.
You have said that English is the primary language in Nigeria because of the country’s colonial history and that many schools are reluctant to teach native languages. What was your own experience growing up? And did your family or those around you speak Yoruba ?
My father always spoke English because he was schooled in England and was a very British man in mannerism, but my Mum always spoke Yoruba to us and that is the only reason I understood the language. Anytime I went to family events—particularly my mother’s side of the family which is a Royal family—I would have to speak in Yoruba. It is really important to them. But everywhere around us it was just English. In school they had native languages as subjects, but it was not taken seriously, and it did not matter if you passed or failed. You were not allowed to speak native languages in school and if you attended a government school it could even get you punished or fined.
Why are some schools reluctant to teach native languages? How can these attitudes be changed ?
English is the official language and parents do not want their children speaking native languages because they believe, wrongly in my opinion, that if they speak them they won’t speak such good English. Because of colonialism people were made to feel inferior if they could not speak English. When I started IyinCreative (the company which creates the app), schools were not interested but when I showed them that the app was animated and that the children would enjoy the pictures and the songs they looked at it and saw it was modern and something that they could actually integrate. It has been challenging but more and more they are beginning to realize that learning native languages will not affect their English.
You have said that the cartoons, app and books came about because you wanted to teach your daughter Yoruba and there were no suitable resources on the internet so you had to create your own. What did you want to achieve with the products you created?
I wanted her to have something she could enjoy independently of me because I was not very good at speaking Yoruba. She loved the cartoon Dora the Explorer and Dora always found a way to put Spanish into everything she said so you would find children learning Spanish effortlessly. It gave me the idea to have something like that in our native language.
How have your daughter and other children responded to the cartoons and their content?
It is very effective. Effortless learning is the most impactful learning: when they are doing it without even being conscious of it because they are enjoying themselves so much. When I started Anilingo I was pregnant with my son and as a very young baby I would take him to the office with me. His first words—Mama and Baba (Mummy and Daddy)—were in Yoruba and he could say not just the easy ones. He would say lengthy words like labalaba (butterfly) or tolotolo (turkey). For me that was proof that it was effective! My daughter is now able to make more complex sentences and they are using it in everyday life.
How can learning native African languages help children engage with their culture?
In the cartoons the children are dressed in traditional attire or wearing play clothes made from native fabric. That is very intentional because I want to normalize traditional outfits. There are also folk tales on the app based on stories from across Africa. To learn about culture, language is the primary thing because you are simultaneously learning aspects of everyday life that apply to your culture. You learn that people eat, for example, dundun (yam chips) or Iyan (pounded yam) and that this is our food, that denim is not our fabric, Adire is, you have a king but he is called an Oba and he dresses in traditional attire. They are learning what it is that makes them unique, not a Westernized idea of what it is to be African.
What demand has there been from parents wanting their children to learn native languages?
The more recognition we get the more people think it is ok. If parents look online and see I have been featured on France 24 they think it must be good. It is not particularly the right mindset, but if it works it is fine. The key thing is that children will get access to the content.
Do you think the recent Black Lives Matters protests around the world will fuel the desire for the African diaspora to re-engage with their cultural identity, including learning native languages?
Yes. If you really want to know your story you have to go to the source, and if you want to know how things have changed, you need to hear from the side of the people who experienced it. We are taught how the British came with canons, they took us over and then the governors controlled and divided the population, separating tribes. The UK is not going to teach it that way. There is a desire to read a lot more content that is Africa focused because they know that wherever they are in the world, if their skin is brown or black, they are in some way connected to Africa. There is a renewed interest in this place that they are from. They want to learn the languages, learn about the culture. Instead of reading Oliver Twist they want to read Fadhila and the Spider.
What countries is the app being used in and what other native languages are you hoping to teach? What are your future plans for the Anilingo range?
Our highest numbers for the Anilingo app are from the US, followed by the UK with Nigeria third. Then we have Australia and France. We now have virtual language classes—you can sign up and have a virtual tutor in Amharic, Swahili, Tswana, Shona, Twi, Wolof and Kinyarwanda, in addition to Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo which are Nigerian languages. Animation takes a long time and is pretty expensive, but we have finished the groundwork for cartoons in those seven languages, which are the ones in most demand. The goal is to offer as many languages as possible in cartoon form and with virtual tutors.
IyinCreative is supported by the Franco-German program AyadaLab.
AyadaLab is the first Franco-German skills-building and incubation programme for young entrepreneurs in West Africa. Initiated and jointly led by the Goethe Institute and the Institut français, it supports the growth of cultural, digital and social entrepreneurship projects.
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