When Taofeeq Adebayo, a doctoral candidate in the School of Liberal Arts’ linguistics program, graduated high school, he planned to study mass communication and pursue a career like popular Nigerian radio show host Gbenga Adeboye. However, one event led to another, and Adebayo found himself back in his home country of Nigeria last fall teaching science to seventh graders.
Adebayo’s draw to mass communication evolved into studies of English, which sparked his interest in the systematic ways that languages are organized. “Reading works of Noam Chomsky, M.A.K. Halliday, and many others assured me that I did not want to study English to become a journalist or a radio show host. I wanted to contribute to our understanding of human language and how that knowledge can be used to improve the human condition and communities around us,” Adebayo explained. Making science more accessible to intermediate students is just how Adebayo is making this connection.
Just over a year ago, Adebayo connected with four individuals specializing in linguistics, physics, chemistry, and microbiology to begin a new project. Together, the team of five translated old and new science textbooks from English to the native Nigerian Yoruba language over the course of eight months. And from November 2018 through March 2019, Adebayo and his team taught from the translated book in Oyo State, Nigeria, and gathered feedback from local teachers. Soon, the team will contract three teachers from the region to give additional feedback on the translation and teaching methods to make further adjustments. Their goal is to provide a clear, comprehensive science text written in both Yoruba and English.
Although Adebayo specializes in linguistics, his appreciation for technology has contributed greatly to his work today. “I’ve always loved science and technology, and especially how the knowledge we have gained from both ﬁelds has made our lives better than they were 100 years ago. However, Africa’s contribution to this modern advancement is relatively little, and one of the factors I think is responsible for that is language.” While many languages and dialects are spoken throughout Africa, most of the individuals studying science at the intermediate level grapple with a language barrier since the textbooks provided are often written in English.
I wanted to contribute to our understanding of human language and how that knowledge can be used to improve the human condition and communities around us.
Since the introduction of the new textbook, students have been more excited to sit in their basic science class and participate in class discussions. Adebayo’s team found another way that the project is benefitting the students—helping them distinguish between “folk science” and “science.” For example, they’ve spent some time speaking with locals about chemicals, which are often referred to and treated as harmful in their communities. The team also works together to look for terms that the students are familiar with to avoid obscurity and misunderstandings in the translation. As Adebayo describes, “Yoruba is an extremely descriptive language which allows you to pack the meaning of a whole sentence into a single word. For example, to translate ‘nutrition,’ we adopted the term ìfońjėsaralóore, meaning ‘use of food to benefit the body.’” To further the students’ opportunity to learn science and advance the field of technology in Nigeria, Adebayo and his colleagues will pursue funding to make this basic science textbook available for free across the region.
Adebayo’s research and work are supported in part by the Mellon Graduate Program in Community-Engaged Scholarship, an initiative of Tulane’s Office of the Provost and School of Liberal Arts that was launched in 2017. Drawn to the linguistics program in the School of Liberal Arts for its flexibility, Adebayo began pursuing his doctorate in 2016. While many other programs exist around the country and world, the interdisciplinarity of the Liberal Arts program allowed Adebayo to approach his scholarship in a meaningful way. “I work in theoretical linguistics while at the same time study the social dimensions that inform the use of language. And at Tulane, I have been able to create a synergy between being a formalist and functionalist linguist.”
The Mellon Graduate Program in Community-Engaged Scholarship is an initiative of Tulane’s Office of the Provost and School of Liberal Arts. The program was launched in 2017 in conjunction with a 1.5-million-dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Through the “Transforming Graduate Education through Engaging the Community” grant, Tulane builds on its strength as a campus rich in community-engaged faculty from a wide range of departments, as well as its strength as an institution with over six hundred established community partnerships in New Orleans and around the globe.
Each year, 12 fellows are selected from incoming and current graduate students in the humanities and arts to participate in the Mellon Graduate Program. Throughout the program, Mellon Fellows work closely with four faculty members and four community leaders for two years on new scholarship that includes special coursework and projects in community-engaged scholarship. These projects resonate with graduate students’ personal and scholarly interests and are grounded in a sustained collaboration with a community partner. Fellows are provided a stipend and budget for their projects that includes compensation for community partners, additional mentors, travel, and supplies.