"If it wasn't for my dad teaching me how to read and write in isiZulu, I would only be fluent in English"
I was in grade two when my dad took it upon himself to teach me how to read and write in our home language, isiZulu. Every weekday evening at 7pm, he would prop me onto his lap and open the exercise book that we used for my lessons.
He taught me the thorough basics of everything from spelling to pronunciation: starting from a, e, i, o, u to the different clicks (c, q, x and their variations) and where on the tongue they're supposed to click from.
As a young girl, I loved the lessons strictly because that was time spent bonding with my dad, but I realise now that I'm older that had it not been for those routine sessions that sometimes went on for two hours when he would ask me to read to him from one of the Zulu plays he kept, I would not be able to write and read in my home language.
I grew up in a predominantly white, Afrikaans town and so by age of eight, I was proficient in speaking English and Afrikaans.
I took pride in my fluency in the latter language because I was the only one from my parents' five children that could watch 7de Laan and actually know what was going on. (It never used to come with subtitles back then so I made sure we watched it just so I could show off as the in-house interpreter).
I remember that - even from an age younger than eight - I esteemed my knowledge in this specific language because of the access it granted to me to certain things, like being the apple of my Afrikaans preschool teacher's eye.
There wasn't much to gain access to, yet already from that age, I knew what speaking a certain language well could do for you; I knew how proficiency in one language could open doors for you in a way that proficiency in another language cannot.
So, in every space imaginable outside of my mother's house, I spoke in the language that would open doors for me.
This, I know, is why so many parents make an effort to send their children to English medium schools by any and all means necessary.
English, whether we like it or not, is a lingua franca in South Africa - it is the language through which so many doors to success and status are opened.
But unfortunately, the sacrifice that often comes with trying to attain this key to success and limitless opportunity is more than the monetary price our parents pay at model C schools - it also often comes with the gradual and perpetual sacrifice of our native languages.
Isibaya actress, Ayanda Borotho, reportedly took her son out of nursery school two weeks after she enrolled him. Her reason, according to the TimesLive.co.za article, was that English had begun eroding his mother tongue and this "freaked [her] out". She added that:
"There is so much of our identity as 'a people' that is embedded in our languages. The truth is, when these kids come of age (early 20s) and are grappling with identity, they will blame us for robbing them of a very core and intimate part of who they are and of one that connects them with who we are to them. The world is doing all it can to rid us of our languages in schools and we are aiding the agenda. Silele."
The reason and motivation she gives for insisting that her son speaks in his home languages is the same reason that inspired my dad to teach me what he could, and it is the same motivation that we need to take cognisance of as we keep converging to a tool we use to succeed and gain access to opportunities.
For as long as there is a limit to the mediums that come in our indigenous languages, the language that they do come in is the one that we need to know in order to move forward efficiently enough, but it does not ever need to be at the expense of the languages we were first taught to speak before all others.
During my first year of attaining a language practice degree at UJ, I shared with my classmates that I don't know how to speak isiNdebele despite my surname connecting me to the culture.
One of my fellow students then asked me: "but if you don't speak the language, what makes you part of the culture?"
I couldn't answer her, and to this day I'm not sure how to answer that.
But the thought behind the question itself is something worth pondering. If a language is the essence of a culture, then given how often we speak English - from waking in the morning, to going to bed in the evening, and in every thought in between (seriously, though, which language do you think or dream in?) - we might just be English people who can speak vernacular languages, rather than being Nguni or Sotho people who can speak English.
If this triggers you as much as it gave me goosebumps when I thought of it, then perhaps like me, you still make an effort to text, have social conversations, and speak to elders (this one is something I could never compromise on) in your mother tongue as often as you can, regardless of how deeply embedded the 'language of George'* is in your system.
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There is so much that I could say on this, especially in the company of others who agree and disagree with my shared thoughts, but the one point I want to make is we're focusing too much on the status that English brings, and not enough on what its invasion and dominance is actually doing to our own languages.
We're focusing too much on what the different English accents mean and what they do and not enough on simultaneously cultivating and strengthening our proficiency in other languages.
It seems that this matter of languages is, more than anything, a tug-of-war between culture and status; between ancestral identity and convergence to the dominant culture; and, for the sake of not letting the native colours of our rainbow fade away like cheap dye, I hope that our indigenous cultures find a way to win every single time.
This is what some millennials had to say about the topic:
*ulimi lika George is a Nguni synonym for English, making reference to King George, who "extended his popularity to the Commonwealth states including South Africa".
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