Crossing Borders: Clemson professor speaks the language of the world
By Taylor Reeves
Constancio Nakuma has always had a fascination with languages, an appropriate passion since his native country, Ghana, holds 42 of them. His interest in cultural and technical linguistic organization has taken him all over the world and given him a diverse cultural perspective that he shares with Clemson students as professor of French and associate dean of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. Teaching his students to view language as a tool through which to see the world and themselves, he draws upon his own experiences as an international student.
Nakuma grew up in a small Ghanaian village, the sixth out of 10 children. Coming from a modest upbringing, Nakuma credits the support and sacrifice of his parents and siblings for the success of his academic pursuits. Some of his siblings offered the money reserved for their own education to send Nakuma to a prestigious private high school in Ghana.
After high school, Nakuma left his village to study at the University of Ghana, Legon, where he developed a deeper understanding of the cultural and linguistic divides that shaped his country. Although Ghana is relatively small — slightly smaller than Oregon — it is intricately divided among 42 linguistic communities, and these divides can sometimes be difficult to navigate.
“At the national university, I encountered 42 different ways of looking at the world while I was still trying to develop my own views,” Nakuma said.
Although he was sometimes looked down upon because he came from one of Ghana’s poorer regions, Nakuma said his time at the university left him with an invaluable lesson.
“A necessary part of surviving is acknowledging people as they are. Period. When you are surrounded by difference, you cannot be judgmental,” he said.
This advice also proved useful when he studied abroad as an undergraduate in France. His first encounter asking a French person for directions was daunting, as the man told Nakuma he did not have time to help him. The response was shockingly different from the hospitality Nakuma was accustomed to at home.
“In Ghana, someone would drop everything they were doing to walk with you right to where you needed to be,” he said.
Nakuma credits his study abroad experience with introducing him to specific nuances of the French culture and language that could not be taught in a classroom. In Ghana, for example, his teachers translated the phrase “il fait beau” as “the weather is nice.” Because his native climate was mostly sunny and excessively hot, Nakuma used this phrase when the weather was cool or rainy in Ghana. After he used it in this context in France, a teacher pointed out that the phrase actually meant “it is sunny.”
To Nakuma, the benefits of study abroad are all in the details. International travel, especially for language students, allows for a contextual appreciation of the culture from which a language came.
Nakuma’s multicultural experiences, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student, influence the way he teaches at Clemson. He is an avid supporter of study abroad and encourages all of his students to take part in international travel.
“Aside from the opportunity to build upon language instruction, the main reason for students to study abroad is that it is important for every person to become a minority for once in his or her life. It rounds you up as an individual and reminds you to be humble,” he said.
Nakuma tries to instill values of acceptance and sharing with Clemson students as a mentor for the Calhoun Honors College Dixon Fellows Program, which brings together faculty members and students to form small discussion groups that meet regularly. Nakuma formats his group openly, allowing students to choose discussion topics each week that range from specific current events to broad ideologies. Through the meetings, he hopes to foster a productive and peaceful exchange of ideas that will be valuable to his students after graduation.
From humble beginnings in a small Ghanaian village to roundtable discussions with college students in South Carolina, Nakuma’s life has taken him to a geographically and culturally diverse range of places. He is still constantly learning and reshaping his own worldview through interactions with colleagues and students at Clemson.
“I have encountered many different approaches to life and can see the benefits of each approach,” he said. “When you add them all up, you broaden the possibilities by which you can organize your own life. By knowing the world better, you come to know yourself better.”
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