Tertius Kapp
Tertius Kapp

Teaching Afrikaans as a foreign language

The Dutch word for “soon” is “straks”. In Afrikaans, “straks” became “maybe”. Obviously, one can have quite a bit of fun speculating on the reasons for this linguistic divergence. “T.I.A.”, some of my friends would say (usually while relaxing with sundowners on a beach): “T.I.A. — you can’t be sure of anything.”

Don’t worry, I won’t be one of those ex-pat types who holds up the horrors of Africa like the dumb rabbit in a Eurocentric magician’s sleight of hand. As valid as ex-pats’ complaints about crime and service delivery are, I’ll leave these to the specialists in the Angry Letter Writer genre, to those posing as asylum seekers in post-everything Canada and to London pub singers asking “how much longer will I have to stay in this grey city?” (how much longer do you have to stay on that flat A minor? As long as you want to, sucker).

When we’re talking crime, I’ve had the pistol against my head, but aesthetically speaking, horror has never really been my style, so I’ll stick to my satiric guns. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy living in a European city. I’ve been in Poznan (eastern Poland, Google it) ten days now, and I pray first impressions last. The wonder of a functioning public transport system, the absence of psychopathic taxi drivers, the absence of striking psychopathic taxi drivers, a market square where “vibrant” means vibrant (not “harassment”), where statues represent outdated mythological heroes, instead of politically loaded myths. And of course, let’s not forget, the Looking-Glass nightlife.

I live with an Irishman called Cormac, who teaches Old Irish at the same university where I teach Afrikaans (let’s not see similarities where there shouldn’t be, please … ). Every other evening we take to the streets, dumb and dumber when it comes to Polish or the Polish ways of doing things, walking down random staircases, following the sounds of music and laughter. We step through a graffiti-covered door and like Alice into a Wonderland.

Many bars are located in old cellars/bunkers/places to hide from the Nazis. Add some Bolshevik chic decor and a few chairs, and soon the place fills up with aggressively moustached men and Slavic beauties, getting high on life, and beer. At about 3am or 4am we stumble into a taxi, where the little Polish that we have learnt degenerates into mispronunciations of “straight’”, “left” or “right”. Fortunately the taxi drivers often hold degrees in advanced linguistics, and can decipher our half-witted assaults on their language.

And what a language it is. Polish is a West Slavic language, in there with Czech and Slovak and some other fun ones like Pomeranian and Kashubian. Before I came here a friend said to me “Oh, Polish … what is it they don’t have? Vowels?”, which was a big joke.

Turns out she wasn’t too far off. Sure, they have vowels, in the same way Zimbabweans have elections. They see no point in using a nice “e” or “a” until they’re about half-way into a word. Consider “zdrzemna;c’sie;” (to drowse) or, perhaps more fitting in this city of cathedrals and full moons, “zmartwychwstawac” (to resurrect). That’s right. Five consonants in a row. No problem, if you’re the beatbox king of Joburg. Which I’m not. The linguistic wall means that shopping is a very interesting experience, consisting of pointing and accepting whatever gets handed to you. Be it the unmentionables of a pig, or something that aspires to be called fish. Generally speaking though, the food is good, if surprising. Yesterday I tried to order a meat pancake with beans on the side. I got a berry pancake. With beans on the side. At least the puzzled expression on the waitress’s face now makes sense. I have to say the absence of good Polish sausage is quite disappointing. The absence of biltong, while anticipated, is quite traumatic.

Life in Poznan can’t all be delicious misunderstandings though. This week classes start, and soon I begin the insane task of teaching Polish students the shotgun subtleties of Afrikaans literature. The language where “soon” became “maybe”. Images come to mind of Van der Merwe, who offered to build the English Channel at a special discount price. His plan was to have two teams digging from both sides at the same time. “But what if they miss each other?” the contract authority asked.

“Well, then you have two tunnels for the price of one,” Van der Merwe answered.

I’ll keep you posted. Not straks. Straks.