English is not our mother”

28th March 2017
Social Beat


By Keletso Thobega -

The recent brouhaha over South African soccer player Mohammed Anas’ gaffe when he thanked his wife and girlfriend, left many people laughing until their tummy hurt.

While some people thought that it was an admittance of guilt that he has a nyatsi, it was probably a matter of not being proficient in English.  We all know that many soccer players and English are not friends. There are jokes about black Africans who are not proficient in English either, from the soccer player who once said that when he wakes he runs away (he meant that he goes for a run) to one who was asked to share his experiences as a bread winner but angrily responded that he had never entered any bread competition.

Veteran Maskandi artist Penny Penny was recently criticised by the English Nazis of social media for speaking broken English on the television show Clash of the Choirs. I like Penny because he is authentic and original. He is also honest enough to admit that yes, he is not eloquent in English because it is not his home language. This is a man who grew up in a rural area and is a product of Bantu education. He didn’t even go far in school; he has worked his way up from being a cleaner to a revered entertainer and councillor in his hometown… there was probably no time to refine his English skills. He is not the only one. There are many people, some who are highly educated, and others Caucasian who get by with sufficient English skills.

No one is born knowing English. We all learn it. English may be a national language in several countries but it is not a first language for many. While it is a requirement for practitioners who work with the language like teachers, journalists, lawyers etc to be more proficient in the language because it is a prerequisite requirement of their career and acquired skill in their field of expertise, it is unfair to expect someone from, say, a rural background to be fluent in English.

Research shows that English language has largely benefited from the influence of its conquerors and settlers. Other languages are also equally important. Multilingualism is enriching for human integration, reducing segregation and making intercultural communication more effective. But English often tops the list… but surprisingly, it is often used as a yardstick measure of intelligence.

When a child speaks fluent English, an adult will say something like, Wow, ngwana o botlhale jang, o a choma! It is not surprising that nowadays many young people twang way… kwing, kwang, twing, twang, twi… but if you listen intently, you might note that they are speaking gibberish; they don’t make sense because they are incoherently stringing along words. This unsophisticated attitude emanates from ignorance and arrogance because some black people, even the most educated, have an inferiority complex.

We not only look down on our languages but also assume English to be superior because we have allowed ourselves to be mentally colonised to the extent that we see anything associated with the white man as superior. English proficiency among blacks often goes hand in hand with elitism and intellectual snobbery. English impresses and also intimidates. Some people even use bombastic words, even when it is irrelevant, just to prove that they know English.
The colonial masters would be very proud!

Contrary to common perception, English is a very difficult language. It requires constant extensive reading and practice to improve one’s language skills.
Unfortunately, some people do not grasp the basics from an early age and therefore struggle with the language throughout adulthood. The irony is that the pressure to be eloquent in the Queen’s language comes from blacks themselves. I am reminded of an incident that apparently occurred some years ago in Gweta.  The villagers had converged a meeting to raise their complaints about wild animals that roamed the village. An English man was delegated to listen to their grievances. One eager man from the crowd volunteered to translate for the chief.

Chief:  Re tshwenngwa ke ditau. Re kopa o bue le tautona a re thuse.
Translator: We are bothered by lions please ask the big lion to help us.
Chief: Re tshela re tshwere mala ka leswana.
Translator: We are holding our stomach with a teaspoon.
There were stifled giggles and gasps from the crowd. The embarrassed chief turned to the English man and said: Sorry sir… You see, the problem is that here English is not our mother!

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