To my fellow English speaking South Africans, English is not my mother tongue. So no, I don’t speak my African languages to only skinner about you. My language is way more sophisticated than that. It is bold, descriptive, romantic and fierce.
It seems to me that there is a taboo around speaking vernacular languages in academic spaces. If you don’t speak with a Model C accent, you are viewed as a not so intelligent sub human species with a primitive understanding of the world. Its been 39 years since black students protested against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools, yet we have academic institutions like Stellenbosch University who blatantly refuse to welcome and facilitate language diversity among students.
I used to chuckle whenever I’d hear students say, “I go to Virrts”. But now it makes me sad to hear it. Sad to see my fellow African Witsies morph their speech to fit into a nonsensical and uniform mould of what an educated black person should sound like. Language should be a tool to communicate with a diverse people not a weapon used to exclude students from academic discourse.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting the author of the Sesotho dictionary, Zulumathabo Zulu. I was going to write articles in the seSotho language for the first time and he was going to be my guide through it. I was in awe of the man’s accomplishments but at the same time I was intimidated by him for two reasons. Firstly, the seSotho I speak has been infused with the other five languages that I use, so it’s not as sophisticated as his. Secondly, the man has written a whole seSotho dictionary and its focus is on my long time nemesis- MATHEMATICS!
The first question I asked him was how I as a young journalist could effectively use his book to write human interest stories? He smiled and eloquently explained that, “in seSotho, mathematics is derived from the ordinary and mundane concepts that people already understand.” He flipped through a copy of his book and randomly stopped on a page with the word ‘motshetshe’ listed on it. “As in the crease that is ironed down a pair of formal trousers?,” I naively asked. “Exactly, the angle that is formed by the crease is used in our language to explain the mathematical concept of angles and arches.” he replied.
He explained that African people have mathematical knowledge which is integrated as part of their lives, unlike the Western communities, where mathematics is more abstract. I experienced pure enlightenment and joy as I came to realise how beautifully simple and complex my language is. It became so vividly apparent to me in that moment, that my language transcends barriers, it is versatile and far more refined than society gives it credit for.
Nasal speech does not make you sound more intelligent and speaking your mother tongue doesn’t make you stupid. Our language is an important part of our heritage, something that comes or belongs to one by reason of birth. If we are not able to speak it and learn in our native tongues, I fear it may end up on the endangered species list.
So no, I don’t speak my mother tongue to just skinner about you. I choose to speak the languages that I do to be more imaginative, passionate and practical than that.