English is not my mother’s tongue

May 21, 2013 § 15 Comments


Excerpt from my book, In My Arrogant Opinion

English is a difficult language with excellent public relations. If you speak English, and have the added bonus of speaking it well with a great accent, you are suddenly propelled into the class of the intelligent. You are not even required to have achieved anything.

I’m not the world’s most articulate person. I hate my voice. I hate hearing it, which seems like a great contradiction considering how often I am caught speaking. If talking were like a speeding fine, I’d have many of those fines because I talk whenever there is an opportunity to do so, particularly about subjects I am interested in.

In the apartheid years, my mother sent me to a Catholic boarding school in the small town of Qumbu in the Transkei. The name of the school was Little Flower Junior Secondary School and it went from Sub A to Standard 7. Little Flower J.S.S. You know you went to a hood school when your school’s name ends with a J.S.S. – and it didn’t have a school song, even though it was probably the most prestigious school in the Transkei.

All children were forbidden from speaking Xhosa or any language other than English. When you arrived at the school for the first time, you were given leeway to include Xhosa in your English until month three. After that you were expected to have mastered the English language. Most of us had never spoken a word of English prior to when we were accepted into the school. Myself included.

The principal of the school was an imperious nun with a slightly short right leg. Her right shoe always had a thicker sole. Her name was Sister Daniel and she was Austrian. She really enforced the use of English in the school despite her Austrian background.

One day, my Standard 3 teacher was off sick. As a result, Standards 2 and 3 had to be combined. We were instructed to remain silent for the remainder of the day. I said something to a friend who was sitting next to me. Then another thing. The teacher caught me whispering and she told me to ‘Shush’ with the authority of a feared teacher. I shut up. Immediately. Unfortunately, I have a very short attention span …

I said something else to my friend. She caught me again and summoned me and my innocent friend to her desk. Then she said, ‘Go to Sister Daniel’s office and tell her that you spoke in class!’ Now, it is true that I had spoken in class. But unfortunately, lunch was an hour away. Let me explain why this was unfortunate. Don’t worry; there is a point to this story.

If you were caught shouting, speaking in class when you were not supposed to, or speaking Xhosa, it was tickets. A piece of brown masking tape would be put on your mouth for three hours. If your three hours fell between meal times, sorry for you, no eating. We ate meat three times a week. And the day the teacher told me to go to the principal’s office to get my mouth decorated with masking tape was one of those meat days. I was not about to go down like that. I must have been 11 at the time. I wanted my meat and I was not about to miss it just because I had spoken in class when I wasn’t supposed to. I guess one could say that there was a thin line between abuse and discipline then.

My friend was the first one to walk out the class. I was very close to the door when I turned back to the teacher and said, ‘Sorry Miss.’ I took one step closer to her desk. She carried on looking at her notes or marking or doing whatever it is that teachers do when they are not teaching.  I inched another step closer and said, ‘Sorry Miss’. Each time she ignored me but I carried on until I was very close to her table. She got up wielding a stick, which encouraged me to get out of the class with great speed.

A minute later, I stepped back into the class without having gone to the principal’s office and said again, ‘Sorry Miss.’ This time, she laughed and said, ‘That’s very manly of you.’ She let me back in the class. Sometimes persistence pays off because I didn’t get any masking tape and I enjoyed my lunch. Yellow samp, cabbage and a boiled chicken wing. It had no flavour, but it was the tasting meat I ever had because I was this close to not having it.

My story is not as tragic as that of Thobile. Thobile was a big, burly, dark young boy. He had the strength of a bull and no one ever messed with him. We had been at Little Flower boarding school for eight months at the time. Unfortunately for Thobile, it took him a really long time for him to learn to speak in English.

One day Thobile needed to sharpen his pencil. We were in Standard 2 and were only allowed to use pencils when writing. Cursive was a big deal back then. Another boy was already standing over the dustbin sharpening his pencil. He was the smallest boy in the class and constantly seeking the teacher’s approval. I saw him hand a sharpener to Thobile and then approach the teacher, Mrs Landu.

‘Thobile just spoke Xhosa, Miss,’ he whispered to Mrs Landu just loud enough for the rest of the class to hear, but faking discretion at the same time. Thirty ten-year-olds looked up from their books in horror. ‘He did what?’ We were all thinking it.

‘What did he say?’Mrs Landu asked.

‘He said, “Khawuthi umshini ndithishwele-shwele.”’ (‘Give me the sharpener so that I can just, quick, quick.’) Upon hearing this horror – a child speaking his mother tongue in class – Mrs Landu summoned Thobile to her desk and picked up her stick. Corporal punishment was very legal back then.

She made him lift his hand and began hitting him.

‘What did I say, Thobile?’ Mrs Landu asked as she struck him.

‘Did you say Miss! Did you say Miss!’ Thobile tried in his best English while screaming from the pain.

‘What did I say, Thobile?’ Mrs Landu asked him again as her stick repeatedly came down on his hand.

‘Did you say Miss! Did you say Miss!’ Thobile failed again to respond in appropriate English. He was struggling to say, ‘You said we shouldn’t speak Xhosa, Miss.’ His bad English still amused us even after eight months in the school, but we didn’t laugh out loud, of course. It was not his mother’s tongue. And I do know that it is ‘mother tongue’ in case you wanted to correct me. I know you blacks. Always correcting someone’s English. It’s for emphasis, dear reader.

Thobile was sent to the principal’s office. Masking tape was put over his mouth and he missed his lunch. We learned that it was bad to speak Xhosa. One’s mother tongue was inferior to English.

Thus we participated in the suppression of our languages from a very early age. No one objected to it and no one saw anything wrong with it. But today I feel for Thobile because I realise that he was being made to feel bad and somehow less than for speaking his language.

What makes learning English doubly tough, are the blacks. Yes. The blacks. The people of the melanin-advantaged sort, of which I am a member.

Why do I say such a thing? Well, for one thing, no one laughs harder at another black person who has just mispronounced an English word than black people. Perhaps the laugh is some sort of superiority complex that makes people feel a little bit better about themselves because they have mastered the master’s language, and so they mock the poor victims of George.

Don’t worry, I’ll explain who George is in case you are wondering – but he isn’t who you expect him to be – if you are a member of the melanin-disadvantaged persuasion, that is.

Funnily enough, no one laughs or mocks another black person who mispronounces a word in their indigenous African languages. There is no pointing, no laughing. Unless, of course, it is about the word ‘ukunyoba’. For some reason, this word takes people back to their schoolgoing days.

The word for bribe in Xhosa is ‘ukunyoba’. In Zulu, the very same word actually means, ‘hanky-panky’ or ‘sex’, if you prefer. Perhaps the two words are rather apt because when it comes to bribery, someone gets screwed in the end. But I digress.

There are many examples of us laughing at other black people for mispronouncing English words. Our most prominent example at the moment is Jacob Zuma. When he makes speeches, people will more often than not comment on his pronunciation rather than the contents of his speech. Words such as ‘management’ depart from his tongue and reach our ears over the airwaves sounding like ‘man-age-ment’. I never laugh at the president’s pronunciation, mainly because I mispronounce about 60% of English words. Although, to be honest, I can’t help laughing at how he reads. We all know how he reads. The following is inspired by the work of that South African fellow now in Hollywood, Trevor Noah.

Pretend that the following sentence comes from his mouth. It is. Very. Diffi-cult to. Follow the. Presi-dent’s. Speeches sometimes.

I, like the president, wasn’t born speaking English. Most black South Africans were not born speaking it either. So it is not, whatchamacallit? It is not our mother’s tongue. This language, which came to South Africa on a ship, has another name. Many black South Africans call it ‘George’, after King George of England. There is something deeply disturbing about how George has taken over the life of the ordinary black South African. In fact, it is not so much that English is here. It is the manner in which we are allowing it to obliterate the rest of the African languages. Particularly for the privileged agent blacks.

Who are the agent blacks? I count myself in this group. We are the ones who went to what were formerly Model C schools after the election of Nelson Mandela as the first democratic president of South Africa. These schools only offered English and Afrikaans, and some an African language, but the African languages were never given the same status as English or Afrikaans.

So we decided to study Afrikaans instead of our languages. It is no wonder then that some schools have decided to drop teaching Xhosa and Zulu even though Xhosa and Zulu are the two most spoken languages in the country. We can’t blame the white man for this one. We have to blame ourselves and our government for allowing it to happen. It is shameful. Can you imagine England deciding not to teach English anymore? We have shortchanged ourselves.

We need to save our languages. Mother tongue languages have to be compulsory in schools. We shouldn’t even be debating this.

Tagged: , , , , , ,

§ 15 Responses to English is not my mother’s tongue

  • cleo says:

    Fully agree with this Khaya, Mother tounge is important shame. Once you loss it, you already lost your Identity also.

  • LoyZaR says:

    Reblogged this on LoyZaR.

  • Agreed! We also need to start teaching our children their mother tongue first after which they can the learn English!

  • Thamsanqa Totos Dhladhla says:

    My heart goes out to Thobile.

  • Neo Tshoaedi says:

    I enjoyed this read.

    On Tue, May 21, 2013 at 1:34 PM, Khaya Dlangas life on the internets. All

  • We sure did (shortchanged ourselves). I am a learned young black lady and am ashamed to say I do not know (atleast not fluently) a single african language. Such a shame that to this day black parents allow their kids to speak English at home… like schools allow only English and Afrikaans, parents should allow only ‘mother’s tongue’ at home.

  • David says:

    Khaya, thanks for this piece.

    I agree that all the languages of SA should be kept alive and allowed to flourish, especially Zulu and Xhosa.

    I grew up in South Africa with English as my mother tongue but learned Zulu as a child. I now living in North America and I still read and understand Zulu. I love teaching it to my kids. Unfortunately, there aren’t any opportunities for me to speak Zulu here.

    Siyabonga gakhulu!


  • I loved this, as a native George speaker and native Georgian (Not Georgia, but England) I must confess to a fair degree of pedantry, yet I don’t find mispronunciation amusing. I recall myself at a young age – mispronouncing ‘honest’. Hoe-nest. A nest of hoes.

    Not my best moment.

    I hope that South Africa manages to reintegrate its national languages into it’s education system without disadvantaging it’s learners – maybe the government should consider bringing in Mandarin as well!

    (I particularly enjoyed “melatonin-advantaged”, I hope you’ll use frequently!)

  • nanuschka says:

    Ndiyabulela! I came across this post today in a search for Xhosa. Why? I had a profoundly emotional experience yesterday, which moved me so much that I have decided to start learning Xhosa. It is nothing but right. We (Afrikaans white people) are the minority, yet we assume it our right to be addressed in English or Afrikaans by anyone of a different color. That is so pathetic. I have never been racist and always thought of myself as being Proudly South African. My experience yesterday made me realize that I lack something truly South African: the ability to speak an African language. If you want to read my post about this, it is up on my blog. PS I am now following you and look forward to reading more!

  • sara says:

    Bellarticolo, molto utile! Stavo facendo le mie belle letture di post pre-nanna, per lasciare magari qualche commento… quando ho letto questo articolo! Grazie delle dritte!!!

  • fezile phungwayo says:

    ohhhhhhhhhh wat a piece ohhhhh wat a piece yerrrr u r very slick you lil bustard “sorry miss ” lmao khaya kill me again beautiful piece completely concur

  • Candice Sehoma says:

    Khaya, You are my Hero!! reading your work is like eating chocolate. (Kit-kat)

  • pertunia says:

    Excellent read!!, i moved to germany about 2 yrs back, and a lot of whites here cant speak english, one has to resort to speaking Benny and betty english with a lil bit of sign language to get the point across. I think one needs to show our fellow brothers how pride whites r of their languages, u wont find a boer talking to another boer in english. Vernac is so beautiful, we need to also start buying vernac books.

  • Portia says:

    Wooow im feeling sorry 4 Thobile bt im caming from Qumbu and 1 day i wish i can take my child 2 that boarding school 1 day ,,,why because Im interested now because KHAYA i think i did see u on tv last week ( im nt going in 2 details ke

  • Manciya says:

    I’m also a former learner from Little Flower J.S School Qumbu.
    I was under Sr Clerence principalship and Sr Daniel in the hostel.
    I do agree with you in most parts of the story, hostel and school experience to be exact. However I don’t think our mother tongue isiXhosa or African languages were undermined or somehow exploited. When your parents sent you to a Model/former model C school they expected you to speak English in your first visit home. They wanted you to know and understand the language better through speech and in writing.
    So I dont really blame them for not encouraging us to speak our languages for we had to speak English at the end. The main reason Thobile couldnt speak english well is because he never tried and was afraid of making mistakes hence he preferred speaking isiXhosa and others couldnt report him as he was bigger than them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading English is not my mother’s tongue at Khaya Dlanga's life on the "internets". All on one blog..


%d bloggers like this: