Opinion

Sanibonani, what? Finding my way back to my mother tongue

Eyebrows are raised and heads shaken when Zak Buthelezi, schooled in English, attempts to speak isiZulu

04 July 2021 - 00:02 By Zak Buthelezi
Existing in SA as a monolingual speaker has been at times a hilarious, frightening and educational experience, notes the writer.
Existing in SA as a monolingual speaker has been at times a hilarious, frightening and educational experience, notes the writer.
Image: 123RF/lightwise

As I approach the age of 30, existential crises as well as moments of clarity create one very confusing melting pot of emotions. In between making decisions on whether or not to throw out my last pair of skinny jeans (because Gen Z said so) and trying to consolidate my long-delayed tax-free savings account so that I can avoid panic attacks about my future financial security, I've found time to obsess about another very important subject: language.

I've always struggled with my identity in relation to it. This came to mind as I read the story of Miss SA hopeful Fikile Cele. Cele was dragged over hot coals for failing to pronounce the click in her surname and was deemed "not Zulu enough". If I had a penny for every time someone's face has echoed that sentiment to me …

I'm a product of my generation. We Born Frees grew up in the burgeoning "rainbow nation" and had more opportunity than our predecessors to make friends across the spectrum.

Growing up in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, I had a very diverse environment in which to learn and engage with people from all walks of life. I'm the product of a Sotho mother and Zulu father, as my surname suggests. I have a very proud Zulu lineage with links to a little-known warrior named Shaka as well as King Cetshwayo kaMpande.

As unifying and uplifting as all of this is, as a child it was hard to celebrate diversity when you were in the deeper recesses of northern KwaZulu-Natal suited up in 35°C heat enduring a four-hour church service while not being able to understand a word, though I can now grasp the majority of sermons by the venerable Rev Ngobese. I have also become quite adept at knowing when to laugh in any other language, so there are some positives to dwell on here.

I often take solace in the fact that I'm definitely not the only one who's endured these growing pains. In fact an increasing number of my peers are growing up with this detachment from their mother tongue and, in turn, their family history. It's indicative of something called subtractive bilingualism.

This is the phenomenon whereby individuals learn a second language at the expense of what should be their first. In a case like mine, where the mother tongue was not perfected at home, compounded by the very anglicised schools I was privileged to attend, it can lead to resentment towards your own culture.

Existing in SA as a monolingual speaker has been at times a hilarious, frightening and educational experience. Among my most memorable experiences has been going to licensing departments or any government department, where a sassy official would take me to task upon seeing my ID and then shake their heads in disdain as I rattled off whatever Fanagalo I could muster. Exchanges with petrol attendants have been my primary tool to learn conversational Zulu and graduate from Fanagalo expert to the next BW Vilakazi.

Contrary to popular belief, there are ways for you to connect with your culture and language even without speaking it

One of the tricks I used to employ to avoid such scrutiny was to say I went to school in England. After all, the school I attended in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands looks like Hogwarts, so it all checks out. This line was always sure to quell any further questioning of my origins.

Over time I've been very grateful to get in touch with who I am and I hope the stories that have shaped my experience might also benefit another mispronouncing Gen Z deemed not Zulu or Afrikaans or Xhosa enough, and they can, in turn, accept who they really are.

The bottom line is that our diversity is something to be celebrated and your first language is often at the heart of that. Contrary to popular belief, there are ways for you to connect with your culture and language even without speaking it.

Fikile Cele was emboldened by the saga she endured and said it would not stop her from learning Zulu, and neither will my multiple cringe-inducing efforts with the language. I have commenced online classes and the next time I'm greeted with a Sawubona, kunjani? I won't be responding with a faint yebo.


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