In The News Opinion

Transformation – African languages get raw deal

  • Devlin Brown

(In the name of everything holy, why do my children at a government school NOT have access to an African language? It is unacceptable.)

– Some years ago now, at the height of the Rainbow Nation period when Afrikaner nationalists were more vocal than they are today, if that is even imaginable, one could barely walk through a flea market without seeing those silly t-shirts saying Praat Afrikaans of hou jou bek (Speak Afrikaans or Shut Up).

As time has worn on these offensive t-shirts have largely disappeared but tend to pop up at various marches or on voting day, often accompanied by that three colour flag of theirs. However, that is not what is holding transformation back. That is a side show.

Every so often tweets circulate where someone writes something along the lines of: “That moment when black people smile and applaud when a white guy pronounces your name correctly,” or “When you pronounce your name like a white guy would,” or “Just call me Mrs S (or whatever)”. These little lines that are good for a chuckle are not just there for humour, they tell a truth. They tell a truth about transformation.

Language in SA is a problem.

Imagine two kids. One is first-language English. The other is third-language English. The first goes to a former Model C school from Grade 0 to Matric, and the other goes to a rural school from Grade 0 to Matric. They both have the same IQ and talents. Take a guess what the Matric results will look for them both who write the exact same Matric exam, with questions written in business-level English. Even if the child from the rural areas does better, she will have had to work harder to get there than the suburban child.

It is simply not fair.

It is not fair that 22 years after democracy we cannot either provide primary education in a child’s mother tongue other than English or Afrikaans, or that we cannot provide first-language English skills to children not at former, white-only schools. It is madness. Fine, the country can choose English as its Lingua Franca. It can decide to operate primarily in a global language (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin). But, what difference does that make when the foundation-phase does not equip kids to flourish in the Lingua Franca of choice at school level. Sure, there are NGOs and various programmes aimed at this and that with the best intentions, but the truth is, it is lacking.

I am very good at Afrikaans. Fantastic in fact. But, let me sit in front of a paper in English and Afrikaans and I will bet you anything that I will be at least a symbol lower in Afrikaans. There are some terms, some ways of expressing thoughts, some idiosyncrasies and some idioms that I will miss. Not because I am stupid, but because it is not my first language, despite being what anyone would consider 100% bilingual. Let’s talk about isiZulu. I speak it better than 99% of the white population, but do you know how slowly I have to read it? Do you know how low my confidence is to actually speak it in public? I’d rather understand something in full and then respond in English as I feel shy and ill-equipped. Why? Because when a white man (me) speaks isiZulu there are gasps, “wows”, and a general audience and it should not be that way. It should be normal. No one should blink an eye.

I run a business that offers extra lessons in Johannesburg. Now, prepare yourselves to be depressed. I found isiZulu teachers and I decided to market in a radius around where I live. Do you know that every Private School I approached offers isiZulu as a third language, second language and often as a first additional language – from Grade One. These are the elite, the privileged kids, getting access to African languages. Now, do you believe that not one suburban government primary school I approached offers isiZulu or ANY other indigenous language? All the talk last year was that the current Grade Ones would be required to write an African language in Matric. Wishful thinking.

How can you expect children to write a compulsory African language in Matric when every single school I approached, and parent I advertised to, whose kids went to former Model C and government primary schools, do not have access to indigenous languages?  In South Africa. An African country. This is a fact and I was shocked. I still am. How can you transform a country when 80% of the population are expected to learn a second or third language (English) and then use it like a first language in their Matric exams (and the rest of high school) and English and Afrikaans children have the advantage of not even being required to speak an African language?

Turn back the clock. Old whites are guilty. Guilty as sin for not learning an African language. However, young whites flooded my inbox with requests for any and every avenue they could find for their children and themselves to learn isiZulu. I was flooded and did not have the capacity to serve them all. Why? Because suburban former Model C primary schools were not offering any African language – even although there is a generation of young white people desperate to learn! (Or so they say when it is advertised to them. I argue that they are not trying hard enough to find places to learn.)  It is absolutely unacceptable to be in this situation. What’s worse? Where do I get my most requests for Afrikaans extra lessons? From black parents. You read that correctly. Young black kids wanting Afrikaans extra lessons. Or let me rephrase that… needing Afrikaans extra lessons.

Those Afrikaans schools who took the education department to court because they did not have the capacity to teach “English” learners are barking up the wrong tree but made an interesting point even if they didn’t realise it. What about 90% of the schools of this country who don’t have the capacity to at least offer parallel learning and grounding of concepts in children’s first language? How can you call a little girl who speaks Setswana at home an “English” learner when in fact she is a second-language speaker?

I am not calling for the scrapping of English. I love English – it evolves and changes at an incredibly fast pace. The English of today is hardly recognisable to old people, and there are more second-language English speakers in the world than Native English speakers. It is a global language, truly. But let me share something with you. I visited the Republic of Ireland many years ago, and I was shocked to find out that parents sent their children on camps where they were forced to learn and speak only in Gaelic (Irish). And that language is useless outside those borders – but it was a concerted effort to keep heritage alive.

For us it is about more than heritage. It is about me respecting a language enough as a human being to pronounce Sicelo properly, to pronounce Umhlanga properly. It makes me vomit into the back of my mouth when I hear people butcher African names (including place names) – even when they themselves classify themselves as black and then vomit on the language on public television or radio. “Umshlanga.”

Respect the languages of South Africa. Praat in MY taal of hou jou bek. It is all good and well to have 11 official languages but it means nothing when little English and Afrikaans kids get a massive advantage in the foundation phase – a gap that other kids will spend their schooling years closing – and to their credit, many, do close it and surpass their first-language peers. The little English kids are doing nothing wrong by learning in their language, but the little kids of 9 other languages should also have the basic right of starting on an equal footing.

If you want to transform South Africa start with speaking to the disenfranchised, disempowered and disadvantaged in their own language. But in the name of everything holy, why do my children at a government school NOT have access to an African language? It is unacceptable.

Devlin Brown

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