English is NOT my first language

2012-09-20 18:47

I am a South African of Indian origin and I grew up speaking English. One would ordinarily classify my mother tongue as English and refer to me as English speaking – after all, it’s my first language; therefore I would know how to speak it best, right?

 

It’s a bit more complicated than that. See, Indians arrived in South Africa only about 150 years ago. The only languages they spoke were the Indian languages from back home – the various dialects can be broken down to at least five major languages. As if communicating with each other in at least five different Indian languages wasn’t difficult enough, they quickly learnt that to live amongst the natives, they needed to speak Zulu; and to work for their white bosses, they needed to communicate in English, and thereafter, Afrikaans. It’s no wonder that 150 years later, Indian languages have been almost completely wiped out in South Africa.

 

Further to the language barriers, in 13 of those decades, Indians were viewed by the South African government as unworthy of proper education. Indians were renowned for building their own schools and universities albeit without the quality of education afforded to their white counterparts. Regardless of whether schools were government run or created by Indians, education was unfortunately of a sub-standard nature.

 

I am a first generation first language English speaker. Looking back on how I grew up, it comes as no surprise that my neighbourhood’s grasp of the English language was atrocious. If my neighbour’s parents were like mine, they didn’t even speak English growing up, education wasn’t considered a necessity and the English everyone spoke was picked up in the area they lived in.

 

The formative years of Indian children’s lives were spent learning grammatically incorrect English from their family and friends. While these children were growing up, they were somehow expected, by the more educated South Africans, to have unlearnt they way they spoke English throughout their schooling career. All the while, they came back home from a majority Indian school and hung out with the same family and friends with whom they spoke to (in the same broken English) their entire lives.

 

In comparison, white children whose mother tongues were English didn’t have this problem. They were already at an advantage.

 

With the progression of Indians to middle class, a noticeable rift had been created – one of which is the judgement passed on the Indians that don’t speak “good” English. The argument is sound – the correct way to speak is taught at school – so says those whose parents instil the importance of education and already bring their children up speaking “good” English at home.

 

Indian townships still exist, with Indian parents who aren’t educated enough to help their children with their homework. The education system easily passes children to the next grade without sparing a thought as to how their lack of knowledge may affect them post school, and it doesn’t help that there are schools whose mission it is to provide teachers with jobs rather than educate children. These Indian townships that still exist are also founded on generations of the incorrectly spoken English.

 

I understand the need to expect the world to speak correct English. After all, I’ve always considered myself a writer and to be credible, writers need to write in perfect English especially when it is the language that your readership largely understands. I was also brought up in an Indian township where education wasn’t revered and the English language seemed butchered. Yet, my mother kept me from kids who were rough, the television was my babysitter and I read everything I could get my hands on.

 

Naturally, my English was “good” and I too used to get mentally annoyed over other’s incorrect pronunciation and grammar.

 

In the greater scheme of things though, does it really matter how “good” your English is? If people are comfortable with the way they speak, and we are able to comprehend when they do, as inaccurate as it may be, shouldn’t we rather just let them be?

 

Perhaps instead of judging, we should take a moment to understand that not everyone in South Africa had equal opportunities. I’ve long since learnt this and instead of cringing whenever I hear someone from Phoenix speak, I smile because it’s these very language imperfections that make up the South African Indian culture I am so proud to be part of.

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