The sole survivor speaks english

Stuck in peak hour afternoon traffic in Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD), the blaring sound of taxis hooting and the streets crowded by pedestrians are heightening my claustrophobia. I slightly open the window of the Uber I am sharing with four friends and the warm air laced with the odour of garbage and urine smack my face. In desperate need for solace, I look to the dilapidated buildings towering over us. The chipping blue paint on a white building is desperately hanging on to the title “ENGLISH SCHOOL” and I begin to question how a place that is densely populated by black Africans in a nation that prides itself of 11 national languages still finds the need for an English school?

In the bustling multicultural city of Johannesburg, learning to read and speak English is more than a way of assimilating knowledge. It is a key to survival.

Hailing from Kenya, a nation that was once severely colonised by the British, English was etched onto my tongue from birth. The command of the English language is a symbol of success in my country and from pre-school I had aced English spelling tests, I could read English books and not a day went by without me communicating to friends and family in English.

So shortly after we migrated, my parents were naturally confused when I returned home with a note from my South African primary school that informed them that their six-year-old daughter needed speech therapy to perfect her English.

According to my speech therapist, Phillipa Ellis, it was my Kenyan pronunciation of English words that South Africans had difficulty understanding. Even though I was an English genius in comparison to my peers, Kenya needed to be washed away from my accent in order for my English to be palatable to South Africans.

Both the reception and expression of the English language is key when communicating, said Ellis. So that is why even though one may have knowledge of the language, it is the assimilation of  how it is spoken in a country that is important in order to open the door that the English language makes accessible.

People in South Africa are realising the benefits of the English language. According to the nation’s census of 2011, there are 51.7 million people living in South Africa. Of the 11 official South African languages only 9.6% or 5-million people speak English as their home language in South Africa. English, alongside Setswana, is ranked fifth as a South African home language.

However, the English language is fast being adopted by many as their first language, specifically in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

People in South Africa are embracing the English language.  The 2011 census shows that there was an increase of 1-million people in the country speaking English as their first language.

It is no surprise that in the new education curriculum, English is one of the two compulsory languages to learn. Furthermore, the language of teaching and learning in the majority of schools and tertiary education institutions in South Africa is English.

So it is safe to say that in a melting pot of cultures, the one language that is willingly assimilated in South Africa is English.

On the sixth floor of the Klamson Towers, another tall building in Johannesburg’s CBD on Commissioner street, are three tiny rooms that make up Excell Solutions, a place which offers “all”, may it be “adults, youth, business personnel, individuals, small groups and company employees” to take English courses. Excell Solutions offers “basic intermediate and business level English” which entails reading, writing and speaking.

Pinkie Biyela, a Zulu woman, grew up in KwaZulu-Natal and much of her life has unfolded in the province, from her basic education to her first job, from her wedding to the birth of her children.

She was content with her life in KwaZulu-Natal until October 2, 2015, when she decided she was going to pursue her dream of completing university and starting a business in the trade industry.

She resigned from her administrative job in a financial firm and she was comfortably settled into her flat in Johannesburg’s CBD by the beginning of 2016.

Pinkie got a couple of administrative jobs in the CBD to build her fund for English lessons. On August 16, 2016, she began her English lessons on the sixth floor of the Klamson Towers on Commissioner Street. Pinkie blames her “rural school” in KwaZulu-Natal for an inability to speak English.

“In my school we did not speak English, only isiZulu, it has been hard learning English, it is so difficult to speak and write but it is important because I want to communicate with many different people,” said Pinkie.

She began classes at Excell Solutions with the knowledge of only basic English words and now she is on an intermediary level, meaning that Pinkie can “communicate easily on everyday matters” but she has “limited range of expression”.

Ana Jorquati, a 23-year-old medical student from Angola, also found herself on the sixth floor of the Klamson Towers on Commissioner Street.

Ana is in Johannesburg for the duration of her three month holiday with the sole purpose of learning English so that she could better her opportunities in Angola. “In South Africa, I have a chance to speak English so I learn better…I read in English, I listen in English, I watch TV in English, I listen to radio in English and my English has become stronger…so now it will be easy for me to find work,” explained Ana.

“I don’t like speaking English, I do not like this language but it is necessary and I am trying to learn it and it is fine but I do not like it so much,” said Ana.

Her current level of English is elementary, meaning that she has a “basic knowledge of vocabulary and grammar”, she can “understand simple message and instructions”.

However, the sixth floor of the Klamson Towers on Commissioner Street in Johannesburg, which is the home to Excell Solutions, a base for English lessons does not exactly fulfil its promises to the hundreds that go seeking to learn English as a foreign language.

Thandeka, an employee of Excell Solutions wears many hats. She is the secretary, she does all the administration, she books rooms for the English workshops and works terribly hard to make sure that the teachers show up to work and people learn English.

In the beginning of October, Thandeka mentioned how the rent for the spaces in the Klamson Towers was not paid for and she was abruptly greeted by locked rooms and confused students one morning.

Thandeka said that for the past two weeks, the English lessons had to be put on hold because one teacher is on maternity leave and the other teacher and apparent owner of the school is on holiday.

People like Pinkie and Ana are left in limbo because the successful continuation of their lives depends on their assimilation of the English language.

Thandeka has been working hard to ensure that learners are able to continue with their courses by putting them in touch with tutors who would be able to facilitate lessons.

Both Pinkie and Ana were put in touch with Lesh Pillay, a tutor in an English school in Bramley. She is a tutor to foreign nationals and South Africans who want to learn English as a foreign language.

“I see so many students who are without the interest of learning English but they know that they need it,” said Lesh. Her interest in teaching English grew from her love of learning different languages.

“I have always been an avid reader and I have always loved the language and I also want other people to love it too,” said Lesh.

According to feedback from her students, Lesh said it appears that learning English in South Africa seems to be more affordable than it is in other nations. To get an estimate of how much English lessons are, Thandeka explained that they are as follows: R800 for one lesson, R2 750 for six lessons, R2 800 for four consecutive lesson in a week, R3 240 for 16 lessons four days a week and R3 000 for 20 lessons.

Just like Excell Solutions, the school that Lesh tutors at offers certificates in accordance with the level that the student is trying to achieve. The levels for English are Beginner, Elementary, Pre-Intermediate, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate and Advanced.

Each level that is completed deserves a certificate. If the student wants to learn English for academic purposes two international tests are optional, IELTS and PTE.

SECOND LANGUAGE: Always equpped with an English dictionary: A foreign national student’s desk. Photo: Hazel Kimani

I attended an Intermediate class for two hours. The class was taught by Lesh and attended by three foreign nationals. The lesson was in preparation for a mid-course test.

The class was an intense grammar session. My presence left the students on edge as I sat in the round table beside theirs. Lesh encouraged the student to comfortably answer questions and speak freely as I was just observing the class. The students had notebooks and textbooks they had to purchase for themselves.

They all wrote with pencils because of the permanent errors a pen would leave behind.

They started off by going through homework, which was in the form of a crossword puzzle. One of the crossword questions were, “bigger than a car and smaller than a lorry?”

The answer was “van” and nobody answered correctly. After Lesh took to the large whiteboard where she went through English articles, such as “a”, “an”, “the” and the use of no articles. The students would ask for the repetition of rules and the spelling and pronunciation of words.

Listen: During a conversational exercise, the students follow and fill in blank spaces. Photo: Hazel Kimani
CATCH UP: Anusha recapping the previous days work before class starts. Photo: Hazel Kimani

If these walls could talk: A white board with the lesson of the day and a poster with vowels. Photo: Hazel Kimani
The students were listening to the pronunciation of English words. Photo: Hazel Kimani

Lesh taught slowly and made sure everyone was comfortable and fully understood what she had just taught. Lesh then asked everyone about the previous day as well as current affairs. Even though they all struggled to articulate what they wanted to say, they managed to respond and engage with Lesh and each other. They even laughed when the student from Ethiopia made a joke.

The classroom’s walls had a “no cell phones, no food and no drink” poster beside the door. Another wall had a map of the world and a clock hung above the whiteboard. There was a fan in one corner of the room as there were no windows for any relief from the summer heat of Johannesburg.

Lesh then taught modal verbs, such as “can” and could”. During the lesson, Lesh would introduce words that the students were unfamiliar with and they would ask for the spelling and meaning. The hesitance of the students was always met with patience from the tutor. The entire learning experience was intimate and conversational.

According to Natalie van de Water, a trainer for teachers from the Wits Language School, tutors that teach English to foreign nationals are mostly taught a communicative approach. The learners are required to be active and the lessons are supposed to be filled with questions and discussions.

“The main purposes for teaching English to foreign nationals is for jobs and generally functioning in society. English is the global language of business and it is necessary especially if someone wants to be integrated into a society”, said Natalie.

It is evident by just observing the current stage of their lives that people like Pinkie and Ana need to assimilate with the English language in order to be able to not only integrate themselves into a city like Johannesburg but the entire business world relies on the English language.

Pinkie’s future endeavours are accessible through her assimilation with English and the success that Ana will be able to attain through her degree will be increased by her assimilation with English.

English then is a survival skill that multitudes on the continent, if not the world, need to attain. It is fascinating that people from different parts of the continent are coming to South Africa, specifically the city’s central business district, to start a relationship with the English language.

After my great difficulty finding an English school, I wonder why many are not jumping at the opportunity of opening such facilities and allowing tutors to share the skill that is fast becoming necessary for survival in global cities.

“I have never met someone who wants to learn English for fun, I have never come across that,” said Lesh. She believes that when someone seeks to learn English it is because it is vital for their livelihood, it is a survival skill.

“English is the international business language so if people do not know English, how do they interact with people from different countries and within South Africa?

“English is not our only language, it is one of many but it is the main form of language, it is the international medium. So to be able to communicate clearly with other people, English is very important.”

So in this culturally diverse hub at the bottom of Africa, the sound of one language rises above all others amidst the bustling streets. English, the language of assimilation, the language of adoption, the language of survival, the language of Johannesburg.

FEATURED IMAGE: Dictionaries at a library. Photo: Hazel Kimani


Lost in translation: Chinese migrants and the language barrier

Chinese migrants who arrive in South Africa with a lack of English depend on local shop assistants to help them speak to their customers. For shop owners and their assistants to understand each other, they have to come up with creative ways to communicate.

Wishes Kondowe has been working at China Multiplex for over a year now, but she still does not know the name of the general store she works for and only refers to it as “shop number 46”. Though she has no idea what the Chinese printed board hung boldly outside says, she is familiar with more than 500 items in the store. Kondowe starts her day at 7.30am. She cleans the store, helps with stock-taking and stands ready to sell anything from faux Polo handbags to large, brightly-coloured, rubber water guns.

Neither she nor her employer know each other’s names and have come up with a way of addressing each other. Kondowe calls her employer Madala, a common slang word in isiZulu which refers to an elderly man and Madala calls her Sisi, which means sister in isiZulu, a term commonly used at Multiplex for black female cleaners and shop assistants.

Kondowe (23) came to South Africa two years ago after leaving Zimbabwe for a better life. Like her employer she is an economic migrant. She was one of the many men and women who queued for work outside China Multiplex shopping centre. Zimbabweans, Ugandans, and Malawians are some of the foreign nationals who work as shop assistants for Chinese shop owners. Kondowe says the majority of their customers are South African, but it is rare to find South Africans who work as shop assistants at China Multiplex.

It is common for Chinese shop owners to hire foreign nationals to help them communicate with customers in China malls. Foreign nationals who are proficient in English have been an ideal choice for shop owners in the day-to-day running of Chinese businesses. Kondowe believes that Chinese shop owners prefer foreign nationals to South Africans because they can interpret better and are more creative in how they communicate with the owners.

Clarrissa Borman*, one of the managers at China Multiplex, says most Chinese immigrants at the centre speak very little or no English at all. This makes Chinese shop owners vulnerable in the sense that they do not have direct communication with their clients and have to leave negotiations in the hands of their shop assistants. Chinese shop assistants also manage the stock, help communicate with the drivers of delivery trucks and ensure that the shop owners get what they want.

According to Borman, Chinese shop owners have very little control over what goes on in their store because of the language barrier. Shop owners do not approach customers, do not market their goods using sales tactics or even interact with customers. They do however step in when it is time to pay for the purchase.

Pricing practices

The one aspect that Chinese shop owners manage tightly is finances, Borman says.  They solely manage the till, step in with price negotiations and the costs for stock deliveries.

“The word price they understand very well. They have two prices, single purchase prices and stock prices.” A single purchase price is the price if one item is bought and the stock price is what they charge when customers buy in bulk.

Regular customers are also given discounts and some stores work on a card roster system to manage discounts given. The more times a customer comes to the store, the more discounts they are eligible for.

Doreen Maseko is one of Madala’s loyal customers. As soon as she walks into his store, he smiles and waves frantically. He starts shouting Sisi at Maseko and calls Kondowe to stop mopping the toy aisle and help with the sale. Maseko asks for a chair from Kondowe and starts pointing at the bags on display she would like to see.  Maseko buys handbags at Madala’s shop and re-sells them at higher prices to her clients. She is a regular customer and, whenever she stocks up on her handbags, she presents a card to Madala at the till and on her fifth purchase she will be eligible for a free handbag.

Borman says the language barrier between Chinese shop owners and South African customers has resulted in multicultural business negotiation. Borman says shop assistants, mall security and neighbouring shop assistants are sometimes required to step in to translate and help shop owners to make a sale. Many foreign nationals are not proficient in South African languages and mall security usually has to help whenever an Nguni-speaking customer communicates with shop owners.


Kondowe considers herself lucky to be Ndebele. This means she does not need much help from mall security guards when dealing with Nguni-speaking customers as Ndebele is similar to isiZulu. Kondowe says she can understand a lot of South African languages because she rents a room in Soweto with her sister.

“Some of the people I stay with are Sotho, Tswana and Zulu so I have learnt to pick up the things they say.”

Kondowe has a diploma in management of business from Tourword College in Zimbabwe, and she says her qualification helps her run Madala’s business. She assists in managing the stock, customer relations and sales.

Poor working conditions

While Chinese traders believe they have a good relationship with their African employees, the tale is sometimes different for their employees. One female Malawian shop assistant says: “Working with the Chinese traders we have [a] language barrier; the communication is based on simple words in broken English. I was working in another Chinese shop before this one but because of strict rules from my boss [no days off] I resigned. If you miss a working day, you are not paid.”

The shop assistant says, because of the arrival of Chinese traders in South Africa and the large numbers of China malls in the city, the job market is better than in her home country. “I found an opportunity with the arrival of Chinese traders.”

“When you work for the Chinese, some things they don’t understand. Like public holidays, how can you explain that?”

Kondowe works seven days a week and, because of the language barrier, she does not know how to ask for days off. “When you work for the Chinese, some things they don’t understand. Like public holidays, how can you explain that?”

Communication techniques

Kondowe and Madala have invented their own language to communicate with each other.  Kondowe says the language consists of a system of gestures, a mixture of languages and sometimes re-enactments to communicate.

“[We communicate] with a little bit of Chinese language, looka looka [to look, or check], and sign language. Sometimes if he doesn’t understand, I show him pictures or draw things customers want.”When customers bring toys or damaged bags back, Kondowe finds out why and tries to explain the damage to Madala. She is not allowed to touch the till and needs permission from Madala to approve an exchange or return.

When customers do complain about a purchase, Kondowe says Madala shows them the “no refund” sign.

Borman says South Africa is home to various communities of Chinese people who arrived at different times from different parts of China and Taiwan. Chinese shop owners speak different languages, practise different religions, and have vastly different levels of integration into society.

 “There is an absence of an organised Chinese traders’ association to defend their interests, and communicate the needs to management.”

Chinese shop owners complain about not receiving assistance from the complex with matters relating to rental. “There is an absence of an organised Chinese traders’ association to defend their interests, and communicate the needs to management.”

Borman says China Multiplex is in the process of trying to find a Chinese manager. There are instances where management has tried to implement a new policy and conditions of the lease, but they fell on deaf ears as Chinese shop owners were left confused or just did not understand.

“When we ask them something, they tell you straight that they don’t understand, and this can be very frustrating.”

Help from mall management

George Mystris, a restructuring consultant for China Mall and China Multiplex, says language is a major problem within China malls. “Chinese people have their own negotiation style but it gets complicated when you have different cultures and nationalities negotiating. Things don’t always end up as intended.”

Mystris says the mall has put in place support structures to help shop owners with customers. The mall has a few South African security guards with walkie-talkies on every floor if a translator is needed. Most of the shop assistants at China Mall are Malawians and do not speak local languages.

“People that work here try to do their translations [into local languages]; although there are a lot of workers here, their English is not good but they do speak Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho.  But the majority of [Chinese shop owners] use their staff to find out what their customers actually need,” Mystris says.

A new family

The work relations and relationship between Chinese shop owners and their assistants has evolved. New traditions have emerged and relationship bonds strengthened.

Henly Gumibe (24), has been working at China Multiplex for more than three years. He left Malawi after his father died from a long illness. He has been working with Allen Lui for three years now and considers her as his family.

“I work here every day, all year without any public holidays, so I spend a lot of time with my boss and we have an easy relationship here at work.”

Lui sometimes brings lunch to work for Gumibe and they have created a communication system for themselves. “For example, if she wants a pen, she will start writing in the air and, if I show her a pencil, she will say ‘no another one’ and I will bring out a pen.”

Gumibe guesses what Lui wants until he gets it right. He says their relationship is mutually beneficial. He complains that the wages are low but appreciates the fact that Lui will give him old clothes, shares lunch with him and that they even play games together when the shop is not busy.

“When we are bored we use Makro[wholesale store] pamphlets, I will show her what I like and she will smile or nod or show me what she likes.”

Chinese shop owners

Ron Yang (44), runs Nizams, a supermarket in Protea South.  He is a qualified medical doctor in Fujei, China. Yang came to South Africa with his wife and son in 2006 and cannot practise medicine in South Africa because he is not proficient in English.

Yang says he loves Soweto because of its safety aspect. “People in Soweto treat me well. Bad experiences towards Chinese people are scarce. They greet me saying ’Chinese, China’ and I say ’hello’ to them”. Yang cannot speak a local language but he can pick up what customers want and if he struggles, he calls one of his assistants.

When customers are looking for items in the store, he can pick up things such as rice, tea and washing powder and show them the aisle in which they are located. Yang says he is learning to memorise South African phrases. When he first arrived to South Africa, he spoke little English. “I was using smaller English,” he says. “Now in South Africa, I can hear what customers want but I don’t talk too much.”

Yang is not the only Chinese foreign national in the shopping centre as Korean and other Chinese shop owners also trade. Yang prefers hiring people from Malawi to help translate in his store. Though they do not speak South African languages, they are more proficient in English. “William, speak nice English.” William is Yang’s assistant who has been the store manager for three years.

William can understand South African languages, mainly Setswana and isiZulu, which he attributes to living in Soweto. Yang also says Soweto and its people treat Chinese people well. “Chinese people are too much [many] in Soweto, you get Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese – in Soweto are all welcome.”