Constancio Nakuma speaking at a podium

Provost Constancio Nakuma Discusses Multilingualism, Diversity, and Lifelong Learning

November 16, 2021

Before Constancio Nakuma, PhD, became CU Denver’s provost and executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, he traveled far and wide to fulfill his educational goals. With university degrees from three different continents, he has experienced diverse languages, cultures, and landscapes.

Nakuma holds degrees from the University of Ghana-Legon (bachelor’s in French and Spanish), Université Paris X-Nanterre (master’s in linguistics), Saint Mary’s University in Halifax (MBA), and Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris (doctorate in linguistics).

Why Study Languages and Linguistics?

The answer goes back to Nakuma’s childhood. “The interesting thing about Ghana, a very small country the size of Oregon, is that we have 42 official languages,” he said. “To go to secondary school, I had to leave my little village and go to a different town in the south, where I was in a totally different language area. I needed to learn four languages in order to survive.”

Elementary school was in English. “You had to speak and write English quite well in order to go through the educational system,” Nakuma said. In high school, he also took six years of Latin. Later, his university professors spoke in French. Basically, none of Nakuma’s education was in his native language. He became fluent in multiple languages out of necessity, but he does truly love language. “Once you have French and Latin,” he said, “you pick up Spanish effortlessly.”

Constancio Nakuma

How Language Reflects Culture

Nakuma loved language so much he decided to study linguistics, which is the scientific study of language. Linguistics includes everything from sentence structure to how sounds are produced. “My interest is in sound patterns,” Nakuma said. “When you know how sounds are produced, you can position your body to produce the accurate sound. Once you describe it to people, all of a sudden it becomes an easier sound to produce.”

Nakuma gets excited when he talks about linguistics, a field he finds “fascinating.” He likes to share examples of language differences, especially with students: “I am hungry [in English] becomes I have hunger [in Spanish and French].” Why is that? It’s because languages reflect how people think. “When you study a language, you have reached out in the deepest way to another culture,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to get into someone else’s mindset, the thing that matters most to them, which is their language.”

Around the World and Back

In pursuit of his education, Nakuma has traveled from Ghana to France and France to Canada (Nova Scotia to be precise). Then he moved to the United States, where he taught at Clemson University in South Carolina and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Most recently, he moved from the U.S. South to the American West—areas that have very different ways of speaking, albeit the same language.

Throughout all of his travels, Nakuma has listened to people speak and paid attention to how their languages reflect their worldviews. “My world travels and my encountering the different ways in which different cultures around the world represent their worlds to themselves and to others has made me a less judgmental person, because those differences do not convey any cross-cultural hierarchy of values. They are simply different ways of being and perceiving,” he said.

Nakuma’s expeditions have made him value diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Our humanity is the same in essence everywhere, despite societal attempts to overlay constructed value systems on it to discriminate against one another based on place, social pretenses, labels we strap upon ourselves to appear different or ‘important,’ and such gimmicks,” he said.

Nakuma’s Goals as Provost

The overarching vision of Chancellor Michelle Marks’ 2030 Strategic Plan is for CU Denver “to make education work for all.” This is something Nakuma truly believes in. As provost, the first of his three main goals is “to support and guide achievement of the collective vision articulated in the strategic plan,” he said. Education, in his view, should serve students who are diverse in language, race, ethnicity, ability, religion, and age.

Another goal of Nakuma’s is to support the strategic goal to “become known as a university for life.” As someone who believes learning is for people of all ages, he’d like for CU Denver “to re-envision higher education as a lifelong learning endeavor.” In fact, Nakuma believes learning can lead to a desire for more learning: “Learning is the recognition that learning never stops—and that one is never too old or too knowledgeable to learn new things.”

Nakuma’s third goal as part of the Lynx leadership team relates to people. “I want to do my best to focus CU Denver on the fundamental value of uplifting and treating people right,” he said. This goal is delineated in the strategic plan as well: “Be known as a people-centered ‘Best Place to Work.’”

“CU Denver is already known for being a welcoming institution to different types of learners of a broad range of ages and social levels,” Nakuma said. The key is to continue broadening the university’s tools for promoting educational access: “We need to introduce more flexibility in how we deliver instruction to learners, and improve access to learning by finding ways to reduce cost to the learner and diversifying our offerings to meet learner needs.”