News / Africa

In S. Africa, English Eclipses Home Languages

Solenn Honorine
South Africa counts no less than 11 official languages: nine black African tongues, plus the languages of the White and mixed race minorities: Afrikaans and English. But, in practice, all languages are not equal. Although the newly released national census shows that barely 9.6 percent of the population speak English at home, it has become the country's lingua franca (common language), used in cities, in business, and in the media. Mastering English is a key to lifting oneself out of poverty. But the black urban bourgeoisie is sometimes confronted with the opposite problem: by favoring English, its children are fast losing their mastery of traditional African languages.

During Zulu at class the Amali Academy, a newly opened language school in the well-off suburb of Bryanston, in Johannesburg, the conversation is halted, shy and hesitant, even though the four students here are, quite literally, speaking their mother's tongue.  Zulu is the language of at least one of their parents, but it has not been passed on to them.  Carmela, 14, grew up exclusively speaking English.

“I normally feel, like, out of place," she admits, "because a lot of my friends know their mother tongues at school, and they would speak that and I wouldn't understand a word they say.  And, they'll be like 'you don't speak it? How? I thought you were this and that.'  And, I'll be like 'yes, but I never learnt the language.'  So sometimes it makes me feel a bit left out.”

Amanda Koffman-Xaba, the owner of Amali Academy, started the school in September to help puzzled parents who, like her, have been unable to pass their native language on to their children.

Koffman-Xaba's husband is Zulu, while she grew up speaking both Afrikaans and Sesotho.  She says the couple "naturally” adopted English as the medium of communication at home.  It went fine until they realized that the older of their two boys, now aged seven and one, would never speak anything else.

“All these years we used to tell ourselves that when the kids start going to formal school system, that's when they'll learn to speak Zulu," she explains.  "So he started school this year and it was only given as an extramural.  Then we knew we were going to run into problems."

Koffman-Xaba says that it took a lot of sacrifice for her parents to send her to good schools where she could learn English and land a good job in the banking sector.  But, she says she cannot turn her back on her heritage.

"I can't say I regret my mom going to the ends of the world because I am living a better life today," she says.  "But I am deeply saddened to see that my kids can't speak it.  And my kids, when they go to visit family that's still living in the townships, they tend to shy away and avoid them.  Not because they don't like them, but because they just... they don't feel welcome by the fact that they can't speak to the other children.”

Saturday is school day at Amali Academy, located in Amanda's plush home.  Her driveway is packed, her previously neat lawn gutted by tire tracks of the large SUVs parked there.  Parents chat over coffee while kids play around the swimming pool under the watchful eye of a nanny in uniform.

Amanda says she's been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response from parents.  In just two months, it grew from nine pupils to 33 who attend back-to-back classes of Sesotho, isiZulu, isiXhosa and Setswana.

 Rafidwa Mutwané, 31,  says she enrolled her two-year-old son to ensure that the culture, values and traditions she grew up with will be passed on.

“As we move to suburban areas, as we put our children into these English-speaking schools, it gets lost, and I really don't want him to lose that," she explains. "It's for him not to forget his heritage.  I mean, how do you appreciate where you are going if you don't know where you come from?”

Parents say they can't rely on public schools to teach their children African languages.  The recently released national census shows that even today, almost 20 years after the end of apartheid, Afrikaans - the language of white minority rule - remains the most widely studied second language.  Commentators say that it is because it has the reputation of being easier to learn than Zulu, the native tongue of almost a fourth of the population.

Voyani Jones, the mother of a student at Amali Academy, says that black Africans should remedy this situation.

“One, it's difficult for you to find African books which are written in your mother tongue, which is crazy!" she complains. "Now, it means that, as black South Africans, we need to hold ourselves accountable to be teaching our children to speak our languages and also to converse and to transact, in our own languages!  Because actually, Afrikaner people are able to do it.  So, what is stopping us?  It's just because of the fact that we haven't made an effort."

But Jones acknowledges that this concern is not widespread throughout the country.  Much to the contrary, she says that people in the countryside or in the townships often moan the lack of facilities for their children to learn English and thus get a shot at a good job and a better life.

“When I think about it, for the majority of people in South Africa, English is not their first mode of language.  Is it a class thing?  Maybe it is.  Maybe it is.  Ha!  This is interesting.  It might be,” she muses.

The census shows that South Africa remains a deeply unequal country.  Despite progress since apartheid, estimates are it will take 60 years for the average black household to catch up with its white counterpart.  The black population itself is also divided between a sea of poor people and a tiny elite which now shares the white population's way of life and language.

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