Stumbling and stuttering through Zulu

2010-06-17 00:00

IAN Carbutt and I left the University of KwaZulu-Natal on a recent Thursday night, feeling a little flat and a trifle sad. We had just had our last lesson of an introductory Zulu course. We arrived some months back, Carbutt armed with an impressive Fanagalo vocab, which he was promptly told to dump in its entirety, and me ashamedly unable to say little more than basic greetings in Zulu.

We joined a small group of students including at least seven foreigners, four of whom were impressively learning a new language in their second language. Our group boasted two Canadian Mennonite missionaries, a Canadian Geology PhD, two medical doctors, a pastor, a priest, a news editor, a professional photographer, a Taiwanese chemical engineer now married to a local man, and a Swedish woman engaged to a local Zulu man. An Israeli student had to leave early on when she was recalled to her university back home.

Enter Mary Gordon, our animated and effervescent lecturer who guided us, with a great sense of humour and a mammoth amount of patience, through the course. She needed both in abundance. As we stumbled and staggered our way through the course, Gordon inspired us with her love of the language and her boundless enthusiasm to see us succeed.

Gordon was assisted by her own tutor in days gone by, the knowledgeable Baba Hlengwa, who has one of the most beautiful speaking voices ever heard, rich and deep.

Paging through our newly received course books, the chapters at the end looked daunting. We didn’t understand a word, and wondered how we would fare.

And so we began the expedition into the vocabulary and grammar of Zulu, picking up important cultural markers along the way too.

Taking place biweekly in the evenings after work, with at times copious amounts of homework, the course is demanding and should not be embarked on unless students are really steadfast in their endeavours to learn the language.

At times the concentration was evident on our faces as we pursed our lips, tugged at our hair, jiggled our feet, raised our eyebrows, chewed our pens, sighing at times and groaning in-between — the physical manifestation of stretched brains hard at work.

Trying to add vocab to one’s limited Zulu verbiage is difficult and wrong words can be fatal. Gordon and Hlengwa are correctly insistent that the best way to learn the language is to speak it as often as you can. Still at the stage where I rehearse phrases three times in my head before saying them aloud, I found a great way to practise is to SMS in Zulu. An e-mail seems more formal and demands correctness somehow but the style of an SMS allows for the odd (both ways) mistake. Our deputy news editor, Thando Mgaga, is still grumbling after I confused him via SMS, saying that we would write an important story namhlanje one Sunday when I was working and he was off. Of course, I knew I meant kusasa, but this mistake in my adverb of time is one I won’t make again after he moaned good naturedly and told everyone what he thought of my Zulu … Ngiyaxolisa Thando


Humour played a huge part in the learning process each week. Carbutt’s ears always pricked up when the words “phuza itshwala” (drink alcohol) were used, and every time Carbutt had to construct a sentence, you can be assured that “phuza itshwala” was in there somewhere.

When another class member was shouting out all the correct answers with boundless enthusiasm, way ahead of the rest of us, the Taiwanese student yelled out: “You are stealing my chi!” to great hilarity. Bad pronunciations were the funniest with the class collapsing in giggles when clicks sounded more like clacks and tongue twisters which rolled off Gordon and Hlengwa’s tongue melodically, reduced us to bumbling izilima (idiots). As locals who were more attuned to the sounds of the language, it was easier to learn pronunciation than for those foreigners who were hearing the language for the first time.

Trying to speak the language at beginner’s level demands that you put yourself out there, facing the self- conscious trepidation of messing up enunciation, vocab and grammar — at times it is terrifying. But we want to learn and we want to succeed. So to everyone out there with whom we, the conversational Zulu class of May 2010, converse, be patient as we stumble along and try not to massacre your beautiful language.

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