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.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syriai
November 26, 2015 5:21 AM
Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs