The Language (D)efect

2013-04-01 16:27

South Africa is one of a few countries that can boast about having a multicultural society which is so proudly reflected in our colourful flag. We have gone as far as dubbing ourselves the “Rainbow nation” in celebration of our diversity.

This of course has placed us in a unique position when it comes to most countries considering that they have no more than 2 to 3 official languages. We as the Republic of South Africa have a total of 11 official languages ( sorry bornfrees Mxilish isn’t a language). You heard right, we can say hello in eleven languages including English, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Tswana, Zulu, Sesotho among others (this column is not long enough to list all of them).

While this may be something we hold dear to our hearts, it does present its own challenges.

Breaking barriers

A colleague of mine recently quizzed me about my generation’s (I don’t know what that means) lack of appreciation for vernacular language. To quote her she said “kutheni uthanda uthetha isilungu kangaka kodwa uthetha nomntu omnyama” and my immediate response was why not? Does speaking English to my fellow black brother mean I have no respect for the Xhosa language? I don’t think so it’s just that sometimes it’s better to say things in the queen’s language.

There have been calls to most schools and universities to start offering classes and lectures in other languages as English and Afrikaans do not represent most of the people in this country.

While I completely agree with this sentiment, how practical is it to have academic institutions offering lectures in all eleven official languages. With our current ailing education system, can it handle the infrastructure that would be needed to implement these plans to promote these ‘neglected’ languages?

Direct translation

President Jacob Zuma in August last year came under fire for saying that single women need to have kids in order to ‘practice’ to be mothers. The President further fuelled the fires by saying that in a democracy the minority have fewer rights than the majority after a parliamentary question was posed by the tenacious DA leader Lindiwe Mazibuko.

Another colleague of mine (I have lots of these) said the media mostly misunderstands the president because he thinks in Isizulu therefore he screws up when he is trying to convert his thoughts to English. The accuracy of this may be a mystery but it’s not completely improbable. Direct translation is something that is prevalent in any multilingual nation.

I wanted to strangle a white lady I was having a conversation with in my daily train ride the other day. Before she got off her stop she made a blunder by saying to me “you speak English so well”. I kid you not. I responded by saying as opposed to what. Now she might have “thought” in Afrikaans by to me but what she said sounded demeaning because it suggested she expects blacks to speak XoEnglish.

No matter how she meant it, people should not say that to other people no matter how sincere they’re trying to be.

Indlela endikuthanda ngayo becomes “the road I love you” when translating to English. Do not even get me started on the pronunciation debacle. We have politicians who get away with saying our COW-TRY (country) leaving you wondering how they came up with that word. But then again majority of our white brothers have a better chance of chewing their tongue off before pronouncing Gedle-hlekisa correctly.

We end up with people defending their blunders with the famous phrase “it’s not my mother tongue” or “there is NO school for pronunciation.” And you know what they right. We all have words in a certain language we struggle with.

Lessons to be learnt

I recently visited a museum with my colleagues and our guide there gave us a mini history lesson before commencing the walkabout. She said one of our biggest problems in this is that we do not want to learn each other’s languages.

We as various ethnic groups must stop being so concerned about which tribe or language is superior rather appreciate our uniqueness and make an effort to learning other South African languages. If we don’t our colourful Rainbow Nation only exists as our beautiful flag.



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2010-11-21 18:15

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