The Growth of a Language is Measured by Number of New Speakers that Use it – Conversation with Yvonne Mbanefo







Born in London, England and raised in Enugu, Nigeria, Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo is a co-convener of The Igbo Conference hosted by School of African Studies (SOAS), University of London — a festival that attracts hundreds of language enthusiasts, writers, artists, and entrepreneurs annually.  In 2014 and 2015, Yvonne won the Igbotic person of the year Award by ICSN for her contributions to Igbo language. Her first book, An illustrated Igbo Dictionary for Children, went to Bestseller status within 24 hours of being released on Amazon USA and has inspired other people to pay more attention to the development of African languages as she has delved into other languages like Wolof, Yoruba, Hausa, and Gikuyu, as part of her work in culture and identity.

Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo is a digital strategist, content creator, and the author of ‘Okowaokwu Igbo Umuaka‘, ‘Gini Ka Osa Na-eme?‘, ‘Igbo Alphabet Colouring Book‘, and ‘Abidii Igbo‘. Her career cuts across Digital media & Marketing, content design, Higher education, eLearning and Applied linguistics and she has a BSc Hons in Digital Media, a Master’s degree in eLearning and Information design, as well as a Post graduate certificate of education with over 15 years digital marketing experience working across diverse niches. Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo has given a TED Talk on “Combating the Decline of African Languages” and in 2017 at TED Global, she met with TED Translators to discuss her work on developing indigenous African languages and the effect politics across the globe have on languages. She is the first Igbo editor at, the world biggest pronunciation dictionary. 

Yvonne is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy United Kingdom, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, UK.

In this Interview conducted between August 27, 2019 and September 8, 2019, Yvonne discussed with Obinna Udenwe, Founding Editor of The Village Square Journal and author of Satans and Shaitans on a range of issues across e-marketing,  language development, the Igbo Conference, writing and more.

Obinna: Welcome to The Village Square, Yvonne.

Yvonne: Thanks, Obinna.

Obinna: I read somewhere that you were trying to find modern Igbo language learning materials for your children, and when you could not find any you decided to use your digital media and Igbo language skills to create amazing materials such as ‘Okowaokwu Igbo Umuaka’, ‘Gini Ka Osa Na-eme?’, ‘Igbo Alphabet Colouring Book’ and ‘Abidii Igbo’. How acceptable world over have these materials been especially as the Igbo language is said to be one of the languages facing extinction?

Yvonne: It is true that Igbo language and many other languages are endangered, because the growth of a language is measured by the number of new speakers that use the language. The old or existing speakers eventually die and take all the language and culture with them, so it doesn’t matter if there are 5 million current speakers of the language. If young people or others do not come on board and speak the language, that language will certainly die off. The materials I create are my own little way of trying to combat the problem and in trying to solve this problem, other language groups are contacting me and saying that they have the same problems too. So yes, the materials I create are popular with both Igbo people and non Igbo people.

Obinna: Many young Igbo families no longer teach their children Igbo nor speak Igbo to their wards. If you read books like ‘The Extinction of Menai’ by Chuma Nwokolo you would understand how painful and devastating it could be for a people to lose their language and how culturally alienating it could be, forcing them to become a minority. You have been in the forefront of the struggle to revive not just the Igbo language but Yoruba, Gikuyu, Wolof, Hausa etc., etc., tell us more about this especially about some of your projects like the annual Igbo Conference that you are the co-convener and what you set out to achieve?

Yvonne: A lot of that has to do with our mindset, which is a direct legacy of colonialism. They came to take, and in order to do that, they had to make us feel that our religion, language and our culture is inferior, which is what Bob Marley was singing about in Redemption song. Our biggest problem is mental slavery, both in religion, culture and in this aspect, language. From making us believe that Christianity is better than our indigenous religions, to giving us bribes such that in order to be educated, we had to convert to Christianity and only speak in English  (or French) in school. Most of us were punished in school for speaking our language, which the colonialists call “Vernacular”. I find that word so offensive!

“It is true that Igbo language and many other languages are endangered, because the growth of a language is measured by the number of new speakers that use the language”

Anyway, I started on this path because living in England where almost everyone speaks English, I realised that the only time I was speaking Igbo to my children was when I was annoyed and shouting at them. So I made a conscious effort to start speaking Igbo to them at all times. I wish I had started earlier, but at least we are making an effort to bridge the gap.

My daughter pointed out that the Igbo books I brought from Nigeria were so boring, so I started creating materials myself. Every other thing like The Igbo Conference and other things I’m doing in the Language and culture space just happened like a chain reaction.  

Obinna: What you do for the Igbo language especially, I compare to that which Kola Tuboson do for the Yoruba language. Recently your Learn Igbo Now project features not just the language but Yoruba, Wolof, Hausa and Gikuyu languages and you are at the forefront of promoting these languages. Did you have a background in these other languages and how difficult is it juggling the three especially as Igbo is a handful already? Do you have a team comprising people who speak these other languages and who help you develop them?

Yvonne: I have so many things I am doing, like running an IT firm, being a mother and other commitments so I had to put a team together to help me. I have templates and I know exactly what I want, so I look for people who are fluent in the languages and I either pay them or collaborate with them. There’s an Igbo proverb that goes like this “Onye ajụjụ anarọ efu ụzọ” which loosely translates as “The person who asks questions never misses their way”. So I  ask questions. A lot of questions. And I figure out the solutions. That’s how I try to get things done.

Obinna: Your biography explains that you are a digital strategist, content creator, and author, with a career that intersects Digital media & Marketing, content design, Higher education, eLearning and Applied linguistics with over 15 years digital marketing experience. And you have about four books on Igbo linguistics and learning, most of these books are doing well on the online market, so tell me how you have been able to apply your knowledge of digital media to book marketing?

Yvonne: The short answer is, by making noise. With my digital media skills, I put out information samples on what my target market would find interesting, and I used keywords that would attract them. The long answer is, if people like a particular piece of content that is free, then someone somewhere will be willing to pay for an enhanced version of that kind of information. The search engines love quality content, so if you put out micro information that is interesting and high quality, people will share it widely and either Google, Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube will reward you by making sure that your work comes up easily on the search results. Then people start wondering who you are and then start looking for more of what you do. So targeted noisemaking online works like gangbusters. That’s basically how I get my books and materials noticed.

Obinna: For some time, you lectured at the University of Greenwich, London on Digital Media, Social Media Marketing and Internet Entrepreneurship – very fascinating courses I must say. These are courses rarely found to be available in Nigerian institutions – how do you think these courses would impacts lives in Nigeria and Africa if higher institutions begin to offer them?

Yvonne: Yes, I lectured at the University of Greenwich for five years and they were fascinating courses, especially with Social Media Marketing and Internet Entrepreneurship because I designed the courses from the ground up with a colleague, because I had the experience of working in the industry before coming into academia. These kinds of courses will make a huge difference because there are not enough jobs and the skills that will be picked up will make a huge career and financial difference to the people who take the course in Nigeria and in the rest of Africa.

We tied in a practical aspect to the course design in that students had to apply what they learnt in class into real life projects. So they had to approach real businesses in the community and run social media marketing campaigns for them for free, so that they could get some experience, have something on their CVs, and get graded on the outcomes. It was a win-win deal for the business owners, the students and the lecturers.

“if you are an Author, do not wait for your publishers to market you. Market yourself, by giving out samples of what you can do, and packaging yourself”

We had to do everything for them from scratch, from putting out vacancies, getting them to send their CVs, interviewing them and matching them up to local businesses. We also had weekly briefings and case studies to guide the students. At the end of the business projects, they would all come and make a presentation to everyone. This helped them pick up a few useful skills, from CV writing, job interviews, Social media management, to presentation skills.
A lot of the courses currently offered in Nigerian Universities are not as lucrative as they used to be because times are changing so quickly and information technology has opened up a huge line of lucrative careers and opportunities that people can get into.

Obinna: You describe yourself as one “passionate about using technology to solve business and educational problems” this is very imperative especially as we have book marketing and distribution challenges in Africa. There is a growing gap between book publishers and readers, a challenge that affects writers too, what ways can publishers and marketers leverage on technology to solve this problem?

Yvonne: In this space, I think that both Authors and publishers need to learn how to market themselves online, because if not people will not know who they are. Nigeria is so unique, if I may use that word, because of the sheer population. There is no reason why content based marketing cannot be applied by authors, as people who have lost their reading culture, can be successfully teased back into it.

It is increasingly becoming so easy to sell content via Kindle, Print on demand, Audiobooks, video, and self publishing.    Publishers can never market you the way you can market yourself. Stories have the power to change people’s mindset and educate them without them realising that their outlook is changing. As an Author, you can leave snippets of your work around, from social media group chats, Whatsapp posts that can be passed around, to intimate events, all basing the work on what people can relate to. The busier people get, the more it becomes necessary to meet them where they congregate.

I didn’t have any background in linguistics when I started my journey in languages, but I quickly made a name for myself by putting out snippets of information frequently on social media. In the past few years I haven’t been able to put out quite as much information online, but the previous ones I have done over the years are still doing the selling for me, because most of my time right now is taken up with consulting work. These consulting offers come about because people still share the work that I put out on the internet years ago, so when for example the British Council needs some transcribing or translation work done in Igbo language, guess who they see when they do a search on Google or YouTube…? Me!

So if you are an Author, do not wait for your publishers to market you. Market yourself, by giving out samples of what you can do, and packaging yourself. You can also piggyback on the news. If there is something happening nationally in the news with regards to, say rice, you can write a micro story about rice, save it as an image (with your name as the writer and a link to where you can be found), and start sharing it on social media like WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, depending on where your target market is. You can have a podcast, or a weekly column. There is so much noise that if you do not consistently bring out time (daily!) to market yourself, you will not build a reputation.   In the process of challenging yourself to put out micro packs of what you can do, you will leave little breadcrumbs that will lead the birds right back to you, as well as polishing your craft at the same time. The key is to be CREATIVE and figure out how to get your target market to notice you. If you are consistent and put out stuff, drop by drop, by the time you launch a book, or a mini-series, people will be ready to buy. Or if someone is asking for someone that does the type of work that you specialize in, people will recommend you without thinking twice. The trick is to find out what people (your target group) want and give it to them.

I love proverbs and there’s an Igbo proverb that says that, “Ahịa ọma na-ere onwe ya” which essentially means that “A good market (commodity/ product/ service) sells itself.”
If your specialty is writing about music, and something happens in the news with regards to the type of music you are an expert in, the media could invite you for interviews, or to contribute if you have left little tasters of what you do. This will further put you out there and who knows what further opportunities will come up.

“there are so many Igbo and Yoruba words that are similar in values, but you still see a lot of hate and polarization and generalization”

You need to spend either time or money to get yourself noticed, since social media and the internet has made the playing ground level. Success happens when preparation meets opportunity. No publisher agreed to publish my dictionary and if I didn’t get angry and decide to publish it myself, the outcome would have been different.
The little samples I had been posting online eventually ended up being my little army of salesmen (and women!) up till now. So whether you want to get noticed by publishers,  the reading crowd   or the media, you need to market yourself.  

Obinna: I like that you mentioned rice, as you know, i am a rice farmer. So Yvonne, tell me, language is seen to be a unifier as much as it can bring about negative outcomes such as war, when we misuse it in hate speeches, as have been seen several times in recent years. It plays both positive and negative roles in our politics and governance. In fact, it is the bedrock of cultures and traditions, so tell me, what is your vision for language in general in a world increasingly becoming polarized?

Yvonne: My vision for language in a world that is becoming increasingly polarised is  education, love and tolerance. Language matters because it is the bridge for communication. Language nurtures, language builds and language destroys. Language and culture are intertwined, so if languages are used in the right way, the cultures, norms, history and heritage of a community will automatically be projected and everyone will be more objective, become more critical and realise that everyone is essentially the same.

For example, people don’t realise that there are so many Igbo and Yoruba words that are similar in values, but you still see a lot of hate and polarization and generalization. Being a very visual person and with my background in digital media and social marketing, I think that behaviour change communication will go a long way to humanising each community group and focusing on what we have in common rather than what our differences are. I think the most powerful tools for behaviour change marketing and communication are literature, music, images and moving pictures. Stories are powerful and relatable. That is the only way you can change peoples’ views and create a paradigm shift without people realising that it’s happening. Unfortunately, these mediums are not utilized well, for example Nollywood — the same misconceptions and hate is being propagated over and over again in their storytelling. I was asking someone the other day why demons and generational curses are only in Africa and not in ‘The Abroad’. They couldn’t give a credible answer. We are being fed poison in the media and if we do not make a conscious shift for quality and focused edutainment, we are only going to spiral further down into more hate and more self destruction. Change starts from within, and we just have to wake up and do it ourselves. Oyibo man cannot do it for us. We need to sort out our ‘nonsense’.

Obinna: On that note, we must end and I say a big thank you to you for agreeing to do this.

Yvonne: My pleasure.