Understanding a culture means learning the language, says Boren Fellow Sarah Mathews
Sarah Matthews at Idanre Hill, state of Ondo, southwest Nigeria (Yorubaland), a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Photo: provided by Sarah Matthews.)

Understanding a culture means learning the language, says Boren Fellow Sarah Mathews

Sarah Mathews, a graduate student in the African Studies Program, reflects on her 2013 Boren Award for International Study, which allowed her to study the Yoruba language and culture.

“I have always strongly believed that learning a language teaches someone not simply a language, but a culture as well.”

by Catherine Schuknecht

UCLA International Institute, May 5, 2014 — Sarah Mathews, a graduate student in the African Studies Interdepartmental Degree Program of the UCLA International Institute, received the prestigious Boren Award for International Study in 2013. The fellowship gave Mathews the chance to fulfill a long cherished goal: to study the Yoruba language. She began in her studies in an intensive summer program at the University of Florida, then traveled to Nigeria to study at the University of Ibadan in fall 2013.

“I stayed with a host family on the campus,” she recounted. “We not only studied the Yoruba language, but learned a lot about Yoruba culture. We traveled around to different cities within Yorubaland and interacted with locals on a daily basis on and off campus.

“I have always strongly believed that learning a language teaches someone not simply a language, but a culture as well,” remarked Matthews. “While I studied in Nigeria, this became even more clear to me. There are simply some concepts, practices, beliefs that cannot easily be translated. By learning a new language you learn to think about these ideas in a different way and you suddenly have a more accurate way of describing them or understanding them.”

The Boren Fellowship is part of the National Security Education Program — a U.S. federal government initiative established by former Senator David L. Boren in 1991 to promote expertise in languages and cultures critical to U.S. national security. The initiative awards graduate students up to $30,000 over two years to conduct independent overseas projects that emphasize intensive language and culture study.

Mathews’ research reflects the priorities of the Binational Commission signed by the United States and Nigeria in 2010 to facilitate dialogue between the two countries on shared goals, including development and national security.

Boren Fellowship recipients are also expected to commit to at least one year of service in the U.S. government after completing their study abroad program. Mathews hopes that the federal service requirement will give her the chance to return to Nigeria.

“This will not only give me an insight into our political relationship with Nigeria,” she said, “but will also give me additional opportunities to improve my language skills and strengthen the research relationships I formed during my recent stay in Nigeria.”

Mathews, who graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Anthropology (and an African Studies minor) in 2009 and will complete her M.A. in African Studies in 2014, feels strongly that her studies at the UCLA International Institute made her a stronger candidate for the Boren Fellowship, including an intensive Swahili course that prepared her for rigorous language study. Her undergraduate education even enabled her to create a nonprofit organization that sent her to Nigeria for the first time in 2009–2010.

Overseas language study is essential to obtaining full cultural immersion, insisted Mathews, who encouraged her fellow UCLA students to study abroad. “It allows you to familiarize yourself with a language and culture in a way that cannot be obtained here at home.

“I think it’s important for anyone interested in studying or working in a different part of the world to have a better understanding of that culture, which, in my opinion, is difficult to achieve without at least attempting to learn the language,” she concluded.

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