Hlengiwe Mnguni

Lost in translation

2010-09-10 07:54

When I was in primary school there was a rule. Officially it was an offence to speak isiZulu - or any other language that wasn't English – on the school's premises. You'd slip and forget only to be reminded when someone told on you and the sting of a cane reinforced the idea of speaking isiZulu as a crime of some sorts.

Now this was no Model C school. This was a township school, complete with the dusty playground, where all the teachers and students were black and mostly isiZulu first language speakers.

Growing up I often felt ambiguous about that experience. Though I have always been sure it could have been done without the beatings, I have become more appreciative of having learnt to be fluent in another language at an early age – even with the undisputed if not unfortunate importance of learning English aside.

Because to learn another of our broad society's languages is to illuminate another part of the South African experience, because life, unlike SABC soapies, does not come with subtitles.

That the government, led by the basic education ministry and South African parents, has not found it necessary to go beyond consideration and act towards the introduction of African languages to the school curriculum baffles me.

Surely it is no secret that most English and Afrikaans speaking people have little or no knowledge of any indigenous languages of South Africa. The barriers that this has fostered are also not a secret.

A white colleague once argued, understandably, that they had no time to learn another language, they had a job and a household to run and a fast-paced life to manage.

But still, I have heard countless complaints from people who, not understanding a language, have assumed (incorrectly) or sometimes discerned (correctly) that what was being said was unkind. With no way to be sure they just get bitter.

And I imagine that having experienced a South Africa where one walks around and misses half the things said when one is not in his/her comfort zone cannot be an experience one would wish on their child.

Like I said, multilingualism across colour barriers gives a person a fuller experience of their environment; surely that is what all parents hope for their children?

The recent language incident at a Johannesburg High School demonstrates what happens when we act as if language differences are only just a minor part of our lives.

Depending on which version of the story is true, the scenario that played out in that classroom is not one that is uncommon. Language differences in South Africa continue to be cause for suspicion on the part of the person who does not understand; or it becomes a tool of disrespect for those who know the next person won't understand.

South Africa is an amazingly diverse country, but all of that diversity is boxed up only to be admired from the outside by those not of that particular culture – most times it can't be helped. But with language it is possible to transcend those barriers and be part of each other's cultures.

Because language is more than communication. In it are idioms, sayings and intricacies that expand on the culture and sometimes the history of its speakers over time. And through sharing our languages we share much more than conversation, but who we are.

It might be too late for most adult South Africans, but if we let pride get in the way and not push for young South Africans to learn languages outside of their parents' comfort zones, it will be a hundred years later and the question "What did he/she just say?" will be as common as it is now.

- Follow Hlengiwe on Twitter.

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