Talking in mother tongues

I am a fan of many things but sport is not one of them. I don’t participate in any national pastime that involves wearing a branded jersey or blowing a plastic horn in the name of nationalism or entertainment.

But after learning that the Rugby World Cup is underway, I have reluctantly started to keep up with the Springboks’ progress. Waking up early to watch South Africa vs Fiji last week came as a complete shock. Admittedly, the only reason I enjoyed watching the match was because I was tuned into the isiXhosa commentary on SuperSport, something that seems to be a burgeoning trend among Xhosa Twitter slickers, few of whom I suspect are fanatics but all of whom enjoy the 90 minutes of hilarious if not sentimental commentary in their own language.

It may not be as intriguing to somebody watching in the Eastern Cape because the language is commonplace there but to the model C generation of black children who grew up unlearning their isiXhosa accents and Anglicising the pronunciation of their names, these instances are a golden opportunity to appreciate the nuances of the thunderous inflections, the allegoric adjectives and the unadulterated charm of our mother tongue. It makes me feel connected to my Xhosa compatriots in a deeply satisfying way that can only be understood through the inexplicable connect that a language can sew.

I was still floating from the euphoria provided by this when I saw this statement on Twitter on Monday morning: “We need to replace English as a national language of communication with an Afrikan language. Forget tribalism. Afrikanism is dying”, and “English is eroding Afrikan culture”. These were two of many tweets by singer Simphiwe Dana on the subject of mother tongue language in South Africa, many of which didn’t resonate with me and many of her followers.

I have a problem with the tendency of exalting Africans and viewing black people, our history, culture and languages as exceptionally precious constructs of identity, that must be fought for for them to survive the colonisers’ quest to extinguish them. This victim approach is not going to ameliorate the fact that our assimilation into other cultures is at the expense of our own.

To campaign for the primacy of one language by negating another is exactly how to kill the cause. We have 11 languages that many people have fought hard to legitimise and maintain. I like the fact that I’m Xhosa just as the next person appreciates being Zulu or Afrikaans. But I appreciate the fact that I can communicate in English. Whether I choose to teach my child­ren one or both languages is my right.

There are many ways to engage our indigenous languages, and it’s more fulfilling to do so through a liberated and proactive approach, such as listening to the isiXhosa commentary, rather than through a reactionary and cantankerous one.

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