From Cape Flats to Norway: Manenberg academic's A-grade journey is rooted in Kaaps

A proud child of the Cape Flats' interest in the language spoken in the streets he calls home has opened him up to a world of opportunities.

Cohen Charles' academic journey is rooted in Kaaps, a language commonly spoken in coloured households across Cape Town.

His thesis on the dialect has seen him obtain his linguistics degree cum laude, affording him the opportunity to complete his Honours abroad, which he passed with an A-average.

Charles, 24, who is from Manenberg, describes Kaaps has an ever-changing language influenced by Afrikaans, English, sabela (or gangster slang) and Khoekhoe, spoken by the Khoisan.

"It's the language spoken where I grew up and still live," he explained.

And he has also taken his pride of Kaaps to the classroom, using the vernacular to teach Life Orientation and English at Bonteheuwel High School.

"I teach them to be proud of their identity and culture," Charles told News24. "Kaaps is a marker of our identity. If you change how you speak, you are changing your character."

Cohen Charles in the streets of Manenberg. (Suppli

Cohen Charles in his hometown of Manenberg. (Supplied)

Born and raised in Manenberg, a neighbourhood established for low-income coloured families after the forced removals, Charles and his twin brother were raised by their single mother, Elaine.

"She was 18 years old when we were born. My mom and grandparents raised us as my father ran away from his responsibilities," he said.

The twins grew up in a strict home where his grandmother took care of them while their mother worked as a caterer at the Rondebosch Golf Club.

"We were always kept indoors and told to play with each other. We were aware of what was going on outside - the gangsterism, drugs and social ills - but my mother was a disciplinarian. She showed us the importance of working hard and staying out of trouble."

A top achiever at Phoenix High School, Charles had no plans to go to university until a teacher encouraged him and his classmates to complete online university applications. Weeks later, he received an acceptance letter from the University of the Western Cape.

He enrolled to study linguistics, joking that at that point he barely knew what it was.

"When I told my mom I got in, she was so happy she cried. But then there was that moment of silence when we wondered who would pay for it."

Cohen Charles. (Supplied)

Charles with his proud mother, Elaine. (Supplied)

Not wanting to be a financial burden, Charles applied for a student loan to cover his fees.

Aware that hard work could result in him being awarded a bursary by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, he ploughed all his energy into his studies, obtaining straight As and making it onto the Dean’s Merit List for three consecutive years.

After completing his degree cum laude with a thesis titled "Youth Multilingual Interactions in Manenberg: A Conversational Analysis", his academic performance saw him being nominated to complete his Honours abroad.

He was selected to study at the University of Oslo in Norway last year.

"It was my first time outside Cape Town, the first time I even got on an aeroplane," he recalled.

Oslo is a beautiful city, Charles said, but very different from Manenberg as the people were "very cold - literally".

"I got lost during my first week. I remember asking a woman to help me get to where I needed to be, but she didn't say a word to me or even make eye contact. I had to contact the police to get where I needed to be.

"That situation was strange to me. Where I am from, people would go out of their way to help you."

Meanwhile, his hard work continued to pay off when he graduated in Norway with an A average.

Charles dreams of one day becoming a linguistics lecturer. He credits his supervisor, UWC senior lecturer and sociolinguist Dr Quentin Williams, as one of his inspirations.

Currently employed full-time as a teacher, he is using this as a stepping stone to one day making it to the front of a lecture theatre.

Cohen Charles. (Supplied)

Charles gives a presentation in Oslo on graffiti in Manenberg. (Supplied)

He uses Kaaps in the classroom to help him better connect with his pupils, Charles explained.

"I think it's more important to ensure that the learners understand what they are being taught, rather than using so-called pure language and consequently alienating them.

"I believe being able to communicate in a clear and comprehensible way is important to achieve better results."

Charles rubbishes stereotypes surrounding Kaaps, including that it doesn't belong in the corporate world or is spoken by less educated people.

"I speak this way and I was at one of the best universities in the world," he said.

Young people from his hometown have the potential to do great things if given the opportunity, Charles maintained, encouraging matriculants to apply to tertiary institutions to further their studies.

His own studies are not yet done – he has been accepted by the University of Cape Town to do his Master's next year.

Cohen Charles. (Supplied)

Adjusting to the cold in Oslo, Norway. (Supplied)

"It's a privilege to have been accepted," Charles said.

"But I am waiting on feedback from my first choice - UWC. It's my university. It speaks local - to Manenberg, Bonteheuwel, Hanover Park."

More needed to be done to preserve the Kaaps language, Charles added, specifically in books which should be accessible to schools.

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