We’ve all heard the term ‘coconut’ being thrown around. For a long time, it has been used to shame people for speaking English more fluently than their native language.
There have been many debates in the media about introducing native languages into children’s lives.
Cultural expert Nomagugu Ngobese believes this is very important, and says: “South Africa has gone through industrialisation and urbanisation, which has made us believe that the only language we can learn is English. South Africa is rich with many languages, faiths and cultures, and embracing those things is what makes us diverse.”
She believes that the more you put your language aside, the more you lose your identity. “You cannot simply divorce language and put it aside because it is a component of what makes you who you are,” she says.
There is a misconception that being able to speak English is a measure of intelligence, which, of course, is not the case. Ngobese believes that a person who does not know their native language is lost rather than learned.
South Africa is swimming in a pool of lost identities
She argues that our native languages are being killed by those who govern us – politicians who mix their home languages with English, and the schools and even places of employment that play a role in pushing our indigenous languages towards extinction.
“In decolonising our minds, may we prioritise our home languages,” she stresses.
She points out that children are able to grasp languages easily and quickly. “It begins with telling your children how to hold up their hands when asking for something politely, and in your native language. That way they learn their language and how to address their elders.”
Her view is that culture is a package and that language forms part of it. You cannot simply do one thing without the other.
“We need to stop trying so hard to be understood by white people and English speakers who will write books that’ll be infested by cobwebs, spiders and dust,” she says firmly, adding that our efforts should go towards understanding ourselves.
Lerato Nkosi says she grew up speaking English at home and although she had a basic grasp of isiXhosa and was able to understand what people said, she was ostracised by other black children.
Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so disconnected from other black children who thought I believed I was better than them
“Because I spoke isiXhosa with an English accent and would place the emphasis at the wrong place, I was teased endlessly at school.” Because she was not comfortable speaking the language, she eventually stopped altogether.
She wishes her parents had spoken their mother tongue at home because her school experience could have been a lot less traumatic. “Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so disconnected from other black children who thought I believed I was better than them.”
Media personality Anele Mdoda says introducing native languages to children is something that should be normal – not a question of significance, but rather a way of life.
“I want my son to know how to speak isiXhosa, it’s what I speak at home and it’s what his father speaks,” she says, adding that they will raise their son in an environment in which they will practise their customs.
“I believe in ancestors and clans and they don’t understand English, so things like slaughtering a sheep will be done to introduce my son, just as it was done with my brother.”
Mdoda adds that she grew up with parents who are deeply embedded in their culture and that when her son turns seven, a ritual will be done, and when he’s older he will go to the mountains.
She argues that parents are doing their children a disservice by not teaching them their mother tongue. Mdoda plans to go further: “My child will speak all languages. South Africans are hell-bent on image and have forgotten about identity. I care what I portray, not how I look,” she says.
“People often ask me why I’m so colourful and I simply say that I’m so colourful because I speak my own language.”