By LILITHA BOCO
Decolonisation has been a recurring theme throughout this decade, and its approach aims to make spaces for the previously marginalised – space for representation and to coexist. But frankly, it is not entirely adequate where language is concerned.
Language is a tool to convey messages, but its more significant aspect is that it encapsulates culture – how people live, what they do, and what they think.
Looking back, when indigenous languages were made official, it was a step towards the right direction for a new South Africa. But in reality, there isn’t much that 12 official languages can do for a democratic South Africa. The people who initially benefited from the change now do not want their children to learn their indigenous languages.
This is not surprising because languages such as English and Afrikaans were specifically for the ‘superior’ South Africans; there were more opportunities for fluent speakers of those languages. Alongside this is the fact that affluence and intelligence are associated with these languages. Being ‘well-spoken’ means one is fluent in either or both of these languages.
These factors are making everything difficult for everyone. On the other hand are the daunting statistics that indicate a literacy crisis in the country. The root of this crisis is linked to how children do not understand the English they are being taught in. This is primarily because they do not attain competence in their mother tongue before learning the language of instruction. Missing this causes cognitive disadvantages like the inability to read for meaning, which slows their progress academically.
Besides its implications for academic study, the English language carries too much weight for its African context. Speaking to Yonga Sikwebu, a 21-year-old isiXhosa mother tongue speaker puts into perspective the social impact of the English language.
Sikwebu describes her feelings when speaking English as complex. “Sometimes I feel good. This is because it makes me comfortable knowing that I can speak a universal language that accommodates almost everyone. I can communicate effectively with everyone in this language without considering language barriers and the chance of misunderstanding others. In addition, I feel like I can express myself easily in English, primarily because of the vast vocabulary that the language possesses. I never have to think too hard; words come quickly to me.
“However, it also makes me feel like I must be extremely attentive when speaking it. This is because I feel pressured that whenever I speak English, I have to be fluent all the time, which sometimes makes me nervous. I think this is because English is often associated with intelligence, so I feel there is no room for me to make mistakes when I speak English; otherwise, that will reflect my level of intelligence.”
The English and Psychology student at Rhodes University reiterates the idea of English being a scale for intelligence in social spaces. Although it is pretty easy for her to communicate, she feels inconvenienced by English when she has to express her feelings.
Sikwebu says: “This is because it feels more comfortable for me to make mistakes in my languages and not have to worry about sounding fluent. Instead, I focus on articulating my feelings in a way that makes sense to me. I feel like isiXhosa is a safe space where I can express my thoughts and feelings in the rawest and most unfiltered way, whereas in English, I have to make things sound polished and well thought out because that’s the only time I feel heard and understood. In that process, I think sometimes the true meaning of the feelings I’m trying to express can get lost along the way.
“For example, this makes me very reluctant to have a partner who only speaks English. I would struggle immensely to communicate my feelings to them, and I will grow tired of always having to sound proper. Also, I feel jokes, idioms, and phrases in my home language are much funnier because they feel more natural.” She sighs heavily.
We talk about developing a new language which, according to Sikwebu, would benefit every person. “This is because this language will not be designed just for a certain group of people, and then everyone else has to learn and adopt it like the languages that already exist. Instead, it will cater to everyone’s culture and personality. It will also be a progressive language that accommodates everyone. It will be a fresh start for everyone with no political hold over the people.”