Molweni! Ndiyavuya ukukwazi.

Molweni! Ndiyavuya ukukwazi J[1]

The issue of home languages and their place in the classroom is one very close to my heart. I am naturally curious about language and while I speak three languages that are among the most common (English, French, Spanish) I try to learn little bits of other languages that don’t come as easily to me. Right now I’m learning conversational Xhosa for my upcoming trip to South Africa. This will be my third time in South Africa and so far I’ve learnt some basic words and phrases but I’m trying to use a bit more. I’m at the stage of being able to say certain things but I don’t always understand the replies. In South Africa I’ve been working with children in Joe Slovo township in Port Elizabeth. A good friend of mine runs an excellent program for the children there. Everyone in the community speaks Xhosa as a mother tongue and they learn English at school. On the books, South Africa has eleven official languages: (in order of number of speakers) Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, English, Northern Sotho, Tswana, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda and Ndebele. The national exam however is only in English and Afrikaans. Considering the Soweto uprising was sparked by the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools, this continued dismissal of Bantu languages shows how much further South Africa needs to go to truly represent all South Africans.

Language is indivisible from culture and as Jim Cummins (Cummins, 1999) says, “if the mother tongue is not supported, leading to the rupture of relationships with family as well as dismissal of the child’s experience up to then, we are contradicting the very essence of education”. Cummins is speaking about the North American experience but his words resonate throughout. South Africa is the only country in Africa I’ve been to and it’s the most multilingual place I’ve ever been to. English is the lingua franca but almost everyone I met spoke a couple of other languages as well, their home language and whatever else they may need. The children at Joe Slovo start learning English at school and it appears to me that English soon becomes the one language of instruction. Many of the teachers teaching in English are mother tongue Xhosa speakers. I’m not sure what the answer is in regards to language learning and Xhosa literacy, and the issue of the instructional language competes, in terms of importance, with issues such as teachers taking food from the students, corporal punishment, among other egregious behavior on the part of the teachers. I would like to see Xhosa take on a more important role in South African society, along with Zulu and other Bantu languages. Some of the soap operas have people speaking a mix of English and maybe Xhosa or Zulu, and sometimes Afrikaans. These soap operas are subtitled so everyone can understand. I would like to see more programming in Bantu languages on television, and newspapers in Bantu languages.

With my third South African visit on the horizon I will look more closely at the linguistic issues that arise in South Africa. I hope to interview people I already know about their thoughts and beliefs in terms of language use and language as repository of culture. They say the third time is the charm, and I hope the charm coming to me this winter is a greater understanding of what it means to live in a multilingual country, and how this affects culture and personal identity. I can say I’m aware of my privilege as a native English speaker but I know I have to check it at times. I am in no way advocating not learning English, as it’s crucial in today’s world to have a good command of English. Xhosa is, however, spoken as a mother tongue by the vast majority of people living in the Eastern Cape so it has critical mass behind it and in my view it is critical to promote alphabetization in Xhosa and English. I’m excited for the trip and the chance to explore this issue in more depth.



Cummins, J. (1999, 2003). Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education? Retrieved from



[1] Hello! I am glad to know you J in isiXhosa


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