Battle for the mother tongue: Not secure in Setswana

2013-09-24 08:00

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

It’s a complaint that reverberates around our multilingual country. Many of our children who are taught in English battle to speak their mother tongue. City Press asked four families how they keep their languages and heritage alive.

Four-year-old Olaotse Mogakane does not seem to think that his mother tongue is for him.

While his mother, Bontle, is happy that his English is so good he corrects his parents whenever they mispronounce words, she worries he may struggle in the future.

“He will be a big man and, whenever we’re back at my parents’ house, everyone in the family will expect him to speak Setswana and he might also feel bad that he can’t and feel like an outsider. It is my greatest wish that he’s able to speak the language, or at least make some effort to,” she said.

“Most of us who attended public schools in post-apartheid South Africa faced some sort of struggle when it came to English at university level. It became clear that not too much effort was put into English through our school years, but back then everyone around me, including teachers, spoke Setswana unless we were in an English or Afrikaans class.”

Bontle derives some comfort from the fact that Olaotse won’t struggle like she did at university.

“I am, however, worried that he may never be able to speak Setswana and that he won’t be able to pass the language on to his children, which is something we need in order to preserve our heritage.”

Olaotse is a bouncy young boy with an inquiring mind who constantly asks questions about everything and everyone.

He greets well and calls every man “malome” (uncle) – a sign of respect and a delight for his mother.

But this is about as far as he can go.

He takes instructions in Setswana, but not too well, only able to nod in agreement or shake his head while waiting for a translation.

It takes a while for him to work out what his mother is saying.

“I am not sure what to do with him because I’m worried that it may have a bad effect on him if I try to force Setswana down his throat. He is too comfortable with English and lacks confidence among people who speak a different language,” Bontle says.

“He is too shy to speak Setswana because it will come out all bad.”

Olaotse was born in Musina where he was exposed to Venda people speaking Tshivenda.

“We’ve now moved to Polokwane where he now has isiZulu-, Tshivenda- and Xitsonga-speaking friends and the only language that unites them is English.”

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.