Everybody’s uncle — but can I speak their language?

2010-11-05 00:00

SOMETIMES there are salutory reminders that one is advancing in years. We have been camping in the Kruger National Park. I have reached the age, it seems, when burly middle-aged men with beer boeps greet you respectfully in the communal showers. “Môre, Oom,” they say, “lekker dag, nê?” and scuttle on by, towels wrapped around their nether regions. It appears that I am an uncle to much of Mpumulanga and Limpopo. I am thinking that I must buy one of those blue helmets with bulls’ horns to wear to the rugby with my new relations

Although they are all now my nephews, I still found myself uncomfortable among Afrikaans-speaking tourists in the park restaurants or the swimming pool. It was my fault. They swopped improbable stories about lion sitings, or insulting remarks about nearby American tourists, secure in the knowledge that their Afrikaans would not be understood. I remained silent and shy. Not that I don’t understand Afrikaans perfectly well. Indeed, I often listen to the Afrikaans commentary of rugby matches in preference to English because their commentators know more about rugby, or at least get more excited. But growing up and living in Maritzburg, I am rarely required actually to speak it. I am too reserved to try. And despite several attempts to learn our other indigenous language, I fare even worse in Zulu. While I know all the prefixes and suffixes and the eight classes of noun I have never properly mastered communicative Zulu.

To change the topic, it is the season for Grandparents’ Day at pre-primary schools. With four granddaughters at that age we know the routine. You watch them sing and then go to their classroom to admire the pictures they have drawn especially for you. The pictures are not always flattering. Grandchildren are too young to dissemble. Invariably, I am drawn with long legs and no hair.

My granddaughters are all at prestigious private pre-primary and junior schools (not in Maritzburg, I hasten to add). What surprises me is that on the classroom walls the bilingual charts of the days of the week, or the seasons of the year, or the parts of the body, are still only in English and Afrikaans. I like Afrikaans. I still treasure my copy of the Groot Verseboek, but with due respect to our Afrikaans KwaZulu-Natalians, it seems to me that in Durban or Maritzburg it would be more relevant first to learn Zulu.

I know why that is not what happens. Teachers and the educational material available to them are still geared to Afrikaans and not Zulu. But in consequence I suspect that the next generation of children will feel even more alienated and uncomfortable in a predominantly Zulu culture than I do in Afrikaans. Although I may want to be friends with people who are different from me, until we speak the language of the other we must remain divided.

It is of no use for those of us who speak English to take refuge in the excuse that everyone from Beijing to Ecuador now seems to speak it. English has become the common language of the modern world, so it is true that they will probably understand us, especially, we think, if we speak loudly. But we will not understand them. When they let their hair down, when they have fun, when they are by themselves, they revert to their own languages and we are left outsiders.

Languages divide us. It is good that in some of our schools foreign languages — French, German — are still taught. We want our children to grow up as citizens of the world. How much more important, then, to learn the languages of Africa? How can anyone take their place as a citizen in South Africa without speaking the language of the people? How can we be at home here?

So I know I should practise my Afrikaans. I know I should improve my Zulu. In fact, now that I am old and can follow my heart rather than my duty I am trying to learn Italian instead. I want to read Dante in the original. We progress slowly. Learning a language when you are old is not easy. What you learn on Monday you have forgotten by Tuesday. So far we have not got much beyond converting “I am visiting my cousins at their house in Venice” into the future and past imperfect tenses.

But for my grandchildren, this is the age to learn the languages they will need to take their place as South Africans. In self-defence, I can claim that at least I could do the above task in Afrikaans and Zulu. But my granddaughters will need to do better than that. I wish their schools took it more seriously.

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and an Anglican priest.

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