Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Whose language is it anyway?

By Athambile Masola

The language question has reared its ugly head again. Recently Rebecca Davis wrote an article about research that confirms “English is leading the way as the most preferred teaching language”. As an English teacher this ought to make me happy. However, I am not convinced that the findings from this research account for the complexity of language use. In other words: “umnqwazi wam awuqini”. Statistics about who speaks what language don’t take into serious account the context, the so-called “new” South Africa.

I am a language teacher who is able to negotiate three South African languages to accommodate the language diversity that my learners bring into the classroom. I am also an avid reader of isiXhosa literature and my favourite poet is Nontsizi Mgqwetho. My double consciousness allows me great fun in my classroom. Anyone eavesdropping into my lessons might say I am a bad English teacher because at any given time learners know they can pipe up in isiXhosa (and Afrikaans, though this is often slang) and the lesson will continue to unfold.

The language in education debate only confirms the many problems in the education system: there are two systems of education in this country. One for the working class, mostly black and coloured children who end up functionally illiterate, and the other is for a middle class minority across the race groups who spew forth the Queen’s English and send their children to extra classes to speak isiZulu or seSotho as a token of how sorry they are about their linguistic limitations. Until this parallel system of education offends us, we are yet to solve the language problem in the education system. Parents who think that their children should be taught in English instead of their mother tongue will continue to make ill-informed decisions about their children’s education and what language they ought to be taught in because they lack the social capital to make lasting and meaningful decisions for their children’s education.

What we really need to consider when we talk about the obsession with English is that English (and thanks to apartheid, Afrikaans as well) have social capital. Those who are making money and producing knowledge are doing so in contexts where they are not required to come face to face with their monolingualism. They do not have to navigate in spaces that demand that they speak another language because they have the social capital which gives them power to control the use of language in any space. The Afrikaans question is still an interesting one that hasn’t been seriously considered but similar conclusions can be made that it is also a language of power. The problem with English is that it renders others powerless when it comes to communicating, and this depends on context. When people visit banks, the train station, shops, the use of English all around them is a reminder of who is in charge, rather than an open invitation for people to embrace English.

Writing about the “obsession with English” confirms rather than questions the hegemony of English and that is nothing to be proud of in a country with 11 official languages. I judge monolinguals. People should be embarrassed that they can only communicate with every person they meet on their personal terms. This is an example of language prejudice which is second cousins with white supremacy. When English/Afrikaans monolinguals refuse to get out of their comfort zone, often smiling sheepishly every time they fumble through greetings in isiZulu or isiXhosa, they ought to deal with their own limitations. But thanks to the history of white supremacy, the person who speaks English with a “black or coloured” accent is likely to be apologetic when they make the language shift to speak to a monolingual English/Afrikaans speaker.

We marvel and clap for white people who can speak another African language as though they are doing something extraordinary, forgetting that that is the way it should be. If people consider themselves South Africans, Africans, and citizens of the world, the practice of immersing yourself in someone else’s language should be an imperative.

Monoligualism must become a myth.

Athambile Masola is a high school teacher in Cape Town.

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