Now you’re speaking my language

I WENT to a school where you’d only ever hear two languages spoken at any given time: IsiZulu and English. The mother tongue isiZulu speakers had to learn how to speak English, so they did. The English speakers didn’t have to learn how to speak isiZulu, so they didn’t.

Naturally, the isiZulu speakers would speak isiZulu whenever they spoke to each other (just as the English speakers would speak English to each other) so that when the English speakers would hear the isiZulu speakers addressing each other in this language they didn’t understand they would seem to get very offended (because, you know, who knows what they could be saying about you).

So offended in fact that they would sometimes demand that the isiZulu speakers communicate in a language they could all understand, i.e. English. Of course, this would in turn offend the isiZulu speakers (because, you know, who are these English speakers to tell us not to speak our own language?).

In a school already divided along racial lines, the language barrier was just another politically-uncomfortable stumbling block on the way to Rainbow City. I’ve watched this situation play out throughout my school years and right up to university and beyond. Perhaps the only solution that can make everyone happy is if everyone learns both languages.That way those isiZulu speakers can speak as much isiZulu as they please because the English speakers would be safe in the knowledge that they understood everything being said.

Most South Africans are already proficient at more than one language, so we know that we’ve got the aptitude. And when you learn a language, you gain a better understanding of the culture from which it comes. This would go a long way towards reaching social cohesion, that glittering utopia we’ve been limping towards.

If we can learn each others languages, we could teach our children to speak the same language in more ways than one. Maybe once we begin to understand each other better, we can finally learn to trust each other more. How we see ourselves as a nation changes with time, and to a large extent, with our community of practice. There is a definite sense in which languages can be an obstacle to integration when they are used to entrench differences instead of fostering shared experiences.

If we are to believe that an overarching South African identity can be achieved at all, then we need to find ways to enhance shared experiences and differences of experiences reduced. Learning each others’ languages grants us an opportunity to share experiences, giving us the tools we need in constructing a South African identity.

Chris Tobo

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