A short version of this article appeared in the M&G print verison on May 24 2013.

Every thinking white South African must have at least toyed with the idea of learning to speak an African language. Few however have made the effort. Nor it seems are their children learning. The department of basic education is now formulating policy to make an African language compulsory in all schools, perhaps as soon as next year. Practical issues aside, why is this good policy? As for white adults, how difficult is it? What is to be gained? Where would one start?

I can now answer some of these questions from personal experience. Learning isiXhosa has been quite an adventure. It has been frustrating, revealing and surprising. It has not revolutionised my world, but it has changed who I am, and it has changed the people around me.

My teacher was quite blunt at our first meeting. “Look, you’re a 40-year-old adult. You’re just not going to learn to speak isiXhosa like a Xhosa person.”

Grown-ups’ brains lose the wiring we innately have as kids to acquire language. Unfortunately, my efforts as a child to learn isiXhosa were thwarted by the apartheid government’s lousy education department. I have subsequently discovered that my story is typical of what happened to many.

In Standard 6, we were given a choice of isiXhosa or German. The German class had all the resources and support students needed. The isiXhosa teacher was the well-meaning dominee’s wife. She wanted to bring black, first-language speakers to class but she was forbidden on racial grounds. We didn’t have text books. Rudimentary dictionaries only arrived half way through the teaching year. In Standard 7, we were told to forget everything we’d been taught; it was all wrong. We started again. And then again, six months later. It was a shambles.

A few words remained with me, but I had no sense of how to use or pronounce them.

At university I did Latin and started French. What was the point of doing isiXhosa? Aren’t African languages inevitably doomed to lose currency? The worlds of commerce, technology, science, law, even our parliament, are conducted in English. Doesn’t everyone have to speak English anyway?

As with English speakers the world over, it is very easy to be a complacent monoglot in South Africa. But it is a terrible trap. It says: everyone else must understand me; I don’t need to make any effort to understand others. There is nothing I need that my language cannot give me.

Dr Tessa Dowling at the University of Cape Town African languages school has been teaching for 24 years. “You must really want to learn,” she says.

Kyle Hudson, founder of Xhosa Fundis, agrees. “Commitment to putting in the time is the biggest challenge.”

But there are ways. Hudson has developed fridge magnets and excellent teaching CDs which one can load on to an iPod for the gym or practice while in the car.

Dowling suggests listening to Xhosa radio. “Do something every day with a Xhosa speaker. Every time you wish you could say something in Xhosa, write it down, and then find out how to say it. Ask the meaning of names. People like that and it builds vocabulary. Start with borrowed words, because that’s easy. Translate your passion into an African language … I have been teaching a religious student and so he can talk about the Bible and God fluently in Xhosa. Focus on an area of interest.”

Hudson suggests weaving Xhosa into your English. After all that is how people speak on the street.

People tend to get hung up on the clicks. But anyone who has clicked to giddy-up a horse, tut-tutted in disapproval, or tried to imitate a champagne cork popping can passably do the lateral X, the dental C, and the alveolar Q clicks of isiXhosa.

“Every language is infinite,” says Hudson, “so one can feel overwhelmed at any point, even in one’s first language. Rather strive for fluency in one area, such as becoming fluent in greetings and endings. You can speak Xhosa fluently in a particular pocket of experience.”

“To experience the human connection [of speaking to someone in their tongue] is a wonderful feeling, and you don’t have to be fluent to make that human connection.”

“As adults it’s unnatural to put ourselves outside of our comfort zone,” says Hudson. “We don’t like to be in positions where we are not on top of the situation.”

Dowling observes that is exactly why being linguistically disadvantaged is a good shift for white South Africans to make.

The fact is the vast majority of South Africans are not first-language English speakers. Not understanding an African language excludes oneself from most people.

“There is so much around you that you are missing out on,” says Dowling. “If you learn you will hear the humour and creativity that surrounds you … I hear funny conversations all the time, and gossip. I overhead an extremely nervous flyer on the plane the other day say, thank goodness I can pray that this plane isn’t going to crash. Surely any creative person should be interested in what 70% of people are saying?”

There is much beauty in a language such as isiXhosa; the way words are formed for instance: umntu ngumntu ngabantu (a person is a person through people), to which can be added the concept of Ubuntu (not easily translatable), mankind (uluntu), African culture (isiNtu), or a person whose health is of grave concern (intunu-ntunu).

That isiXhosa is constructed out of morphemes (a unit of meaning) itself in a way mirrors African culture’s emphasis on communion and co-operation as opposed to Western individualism.

The syllable “nga” in Xhosa can be translated as through, on, at, about, using, may, can, would or the negative form, just depending on its context and connection to other syllables around it, explains Hudson.

You can only really understand a world view through its language.

Dowling gives the example of the passive tense. You don’t say “my mother died”. You say in isiXhosa, “I was died for by my mother”. It’s not “I missed the bus”, it’s “I was missed by the bus”. It’s a different way of seeing oneself in the world.

This is why interventions in education, in medicine, in HIV and Aids awareness cannot achieve the same success in a language that is not the people’s, Dowling believes.

Many of the adults now studying Xhosa are working in these fields. Hudson has had British doctors whose experience of patients and their professional trust have been totally transformed by the language.

I soon discovered how rude white people are generally, and how many faux pas we constantly make, none of which helps build social cohesion. It’s impolite to greet someone by their first name if they are older than you; what’s more it’s extremely impolite to start talking to someone without first asking how they are. And it’s very rude to carry on speaking to them when you haven’t asked their name.

Once you have the basics in place, one of the best ways to learn is in a homestay in the rural areas, advises Hudson.

Dowling agrees. “You want to be in an environment where your Xhosa is better than their English. Homestays are a fraction of the cost of going on holiday to Europe, and they are in some of the most beautiful places in the world.”

“Upon returning [to the city],” says Hudson, “you suddenly appreciate how much people from that environment have to adapt to the city.” That alone gives invaluable insights into your society and understanding the people around one.

“Language is the new apartheid,” says Dowling. If you are only Xhosa-speaking you have this additional hurdle to get a job or promotion. Poverty and language are linked.”

This is partly because many people erroneously confuse intelligence and language ability. When I still had a restaurant, I had my white waiters serve the black trainees in Xhosa. The entire script was written out on a blackboard for them, so they didn’t have to remember anything, just follow the script speaking in a foreign language. The white staff quickly understood the challenges my black staff were facing. It was the language; not culture, not stupidity. Their arrogance vanished and they became excellent teachers.

Learning a language does change one’s identity. It has often enabled me to some extent evade being constructed as a white person. It instantly shifts the dynamic. Older black people, especially women I find, appreciate it as a sign of respect.

A vital word is “uxolo” (sorry), which can rescue you and even reverse awkward situations. As white people we have a lot to say sorry for.

As always South Africa is full of anomalies. There are now wealthy Xhosa people in the middle classes who feel embarrassed they can’t speak Xhosa any more.

On the other extreme, there are immigrants from elsewhere in Africa, such as Mozambique, who are learning Xhosa at an astounding rate. For them it can be a matter of survival. Once I launched into Xhosa at the gym sauna to a black man. He grinned and shook his head. He was Angolan. He said he was still learning, just like me, but picking it up off the street.

One should be prepared for a variety of reactions. The world is made up of individuals and there is no accounting for some of them.

Sometimes people don’t hear you because they are listening out for English, so when you suddenly speak isiXhosa it simply doesn’t register and you think you’re being ignored.

After my first few lessons, plucking up my courage, I set off down my road, Kloof Street, to start greeting people in Xhosa, spreading love and goodwill. But this being Tamboerskloof, Cape Town, all the whites were speaking German and all the blacks French.

I quickly learned not to assume that I could tell who was or wasn’t Xhosa, but always to first ask, “Uyasithetha isiXhosa?” (Do you speak Xhosa?).

Some young black people take offence, even when isiXhosa is their mother tongue. They want to be assimilated into the aspirant culture. The same phenomenon has been observed among Hispanic kids in the US and other migrants who get teased at school and become embarrassed to speak their home language.

Others have a cynical response. They accuse you of tokenism. The attitude is: don’t think because you learned to speak a few words of my language you’re okay. The reply to which is, I don’t.

Still others are suspicious of your intentions. It is best then to avoid the imperative mood.

On the other hand, my Xhosa friends don’t want to make small talk. They want to speak about the economy, politics and art, well beyond my African language capability.

My domestic worker however has shown some determination to improve my Xhosa. She brought her five-year-old daughter the other day. I asked her daughter how she was, and we exchanged names. Of course, she now assumed I was fluent. She went off like a machine gun. When I said, in Xhosa, I didn’t understand, could she repeat, and could she speak slowly (“Uxolo, uthini? Andiqondi. Khawuphinde, Khawuthethe nogkucotha”), she thought I was playing the fool. Then that I was a fool. Here was a grown-up with the vocabulary of someone half her age.

Later, when I left the house she still ran after me calling from the door, “Uyaphi?” (where are you going?)

So in practice, my Xhosa speaking is mostly limited to service personnel, waiters, attendants at petrol stations, parking garages, municipal and government offices and the like. But that is enough to make a huge difference to one’s life. I actually look forward to the parking attendant bearing down on me these days.

One also enters a more laissez-faire, informal economy. You get all kinds of discounts; that lost parking ticket is no longer such a big obstacle; the charge for arriving late by five minutes might be waived; I do get that aisle seat up front on the plane and that extra kilogram of luggage; the glass of wine is a little fuller.

But the real benefit is that you feel you can belong in places you never really did before.

Where to learn:






Speak Xhosa With Us by Tessa Dowling and 2nd language African language courses at the University of Cape Town: Contact: [email protected] or visit www.afrilang.uct.ac.za

Xhosa Fundis with Kyle Hudson. Contact: [email protected] or visit www.xhosafundis.co.za


  • Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of GroundUp.org.za and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary Coloured (Human & Rouseau, 2007) and Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi-Random House, 2011). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003. Follow him on Twitter or visit www.meersman.co.za


Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of GroundUp.org.za and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary...

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