Crossing the (African) language barrier

It's been a long time coming, but learning an African language will soon be compulsory in schools. (Graphic: Cassandra Johnson)

It's been a long time coming, but learning an African language will soon be compulsory in schools. (Graphic: Cassandra Johnson)

It's been a long time coming, but learning an African language will soon be compulsory in schools. Brent Meersman tries to keep ahead of the kids.

Every thinking white South African must have at least toyed with the idea of learning to speak an African language. Few, however, have made the effort.

Now it seems their children will be learning one. The department of basic education said this week it finally intends to make an African language compulsory in all primary schools, perhaps as soon as next year. Last week, the University of KwaZulu-Natal announced that it would make learning isiZulu compulsory from next year.

Practical issues aside, why is this good policy? As for white adults, how difficult is it? What is to be gained? Where would one start?

At university I did Latin and started French. What was the point of doing isiXhosa? Aren't African languages inevitably doomed to lose currency? The worlds of commerce, technology, science, law, even our Parliament, are conducted in English. Doesn't everyone have to speak English anyway?

It is easy to be a complacent monoglot in South Africa. But it says: everyone else must understand me; I don't need to make any effort to understand others. There is nothing I need that my language cannot give me.

"Every language is infinite," says Kyle Hudson, founder of Xhosa Fundis, "so one can feel overwhelmed at any point, even in one's first language. Rather strive for fluency in one area, such as becoming fluent in greetings and endings … To experience the human connection [of speaking to someone in their tongue] is a wonderful feeling, and you don't have to be fluent to make that human connection."

People tend to get hung up on the clicks. But anyone who has clicked to giddy-up a horse, tut-tutted in disapproval, or tried to imitate a champagne cork popping can passably do the lateral X, the dental C and the alveolar Q clicks of isiXhosa.

Comfort zones
"As adults it's unnatural to put ourselves outside of our comfort zone," says Hudson.

Dr Tessa Dowling at the University of Cape Town's African languages school believes that is exactly why being linguistically advantaged is a good shift for white South Africans to make.

Not understanding an African language in South Africa quite simply excludes one from understanding most South Africans.

"There is so much around you that you are missing out on," says Dowling. "I hear funny conversations all the time, and gossip. Surely any creative person should be interested in what 70% of people are saying?"

There is much beauty in a language such as isiXhosa; the way words are formed, for instance: umntu ngumntu ngabantu (a person is a person through people), to which can be added the concept of ubuntu (not easily translatable), mankind (uluntu), African culture (isiNtu), or a person whose health is of grave concern (intunu-ntunu).

That isiXhosa is constructed out of morphemes (a unit of meaning) itself mirrors African culture's emphasis on communion and co-operation as opposed to Western individualism.

You can only really understand a world-view through its language.

Dowling gives the example of the passive tense. You don't say: "My mother died." You say in isiXhosa: "I was died for by my mother." It's not: "I missed the bus"; it's: "I was missed by the bus." It's a different way of seeing oneself in the world.

The new apartheid
Once I started learning I discovered how rude white people are generally, and how many faux pas we make, none of which helps to build social cohesion. It's impolite to greet someone by their first name if they are older than you; it is extremely impolite to start talking to someone without first asking how they are. And it's downright rude to carry on speaking to them when you haven't asked their name.

"Language is the new apartheid," says Dowling. "If you are only isi­Xhosa-speaking you have this additional hurdle to get a job or promotion. Poverty and language are linked."

As always, South Africa is full of anomalies. There are now wealthy Xhosa people in the middle classes who feel embarrassed that they can't speak isiXhosa anymore.

On the other extreme, there are immigrants from elsewhere in Africa, such as Mozambique, who are learning isiXhosa as a matter of survival. Once I launched into isi­Xhosa at the gym to a black man. He grinned and shook his head. He was Angolan. He said he was still learning, just like me, but picking it up off the street.One should be prepared for a variety of reactions. Sometimes people don't hear you because they are listening out for English, so when you suddenly speak isiXhosa it simply doesn't register and you think you're being ignored.

After my first few lessons, plucking up my courage, I set off down my road, Kloof Street, to start greeting people in isiXhosa. But this being Tamboerskloof, Cape Town, all the whites were speaking German and all the blacks French.

I quickly learnt not to assume that I could tell who was or wasn't Xhosa, but always to ask first, "Uyasithetha isiXhosa?" (Do you speak isiXhosa?).

Some young black people take offence, even when isiXhosa is their mother tongue. They want to be assimilated into the aspirant culture.

Huge difference
Others have a cynical response. They accuse you of tokenism. The attitude is: don't think because you learned to speak a few words of my language you're okay. The reply to which is, I don't.

On the other hand, my Xhosa friends don't want to make small talk. They want to speak about the economy, politics and art.

My domestic worker has shown some determination to improve my isi­Xhosa. She brought her five-year-old daughter to work the other day. I asked her daughter how she was, and we exchanged names. Of course, she now assumed I was fluent. She went off like a machine gun. When I said, in isiXhosa, I didn't understand, could she repeat, and could she speak slowly ("Uxolo, uthini? Andiqondi. Khawuphinde, Khawuthethe nogkucotha"), she thought I was playing the fool. Then that I was a fool. Here was a grown-up with the vocabulary of someone half her age.

So, in practice, my isiXhosa speaking is mostly limited to service personnel, waiters, attendants at petrol stations, parking garages, municipal and government offices and the like. But that is enough to make a huge difference to one's life. I actually look forward to the parking attendant bearing down on me these days.

One also enters a more laissez-faire, informal economy. You get all kinds of discounts - that lost parking ticket is no longer such a big obstacle; the charge for arriving late by five minutes might be waived; I do get that aisle seat up front on the plane and that extra kilogram of luggage; the glass of wine is a little fuller.

But the real benefit is that you feel you can belong in places you never really did before.

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a political novelist (Primary Coloured, Reports Before Daybreak). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003 about things that make life more enjoyable – the arts, literature and travel and (in his Friday column, Once Bitten) food. If comments on the internet are to be believed, he is a self-loathing white racist, an ultra-left counter-revolutionary, a neo-liberal communist capitalist, imperialist anarchist, and most proudly a bourgeois working-class lad. Or you can put the labels aside and read what he writes. Visit his website: Read more from Brent Meersman


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