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  • Thandiwe Ntshinga

Rather try and fail than fail to try? Struggles with language insecurities.

This morning, just before attending to my daily duty of tending to my chickens, my mind decided to remind me of one of my most embarrassing moments to date. An incident that happened years ago, that in itself should not be so bad but with my deep-rooted language insecurities, this incident still manages to haunt my mind and my heart.

One very dramatic night out, I was venting to two friends while in an Uber. In my rant, the words that made sense to me were khawundiyeke/leave me alone. What came out of my mouth was not quite that. I flopped. My pronunciation was horrible. There was an awkward silence in the Uber with even the driver turning around to take a look at the passenger whose attempt at a simple isiXhosa phrase was so poorly executed. In that moment, I wanted to jump out of the Uber and simply vanish. I was as devastatingly embarrassed then as I am now writing this.

My insecurities surrounding language, particularly my mother tongue isiXhosa, have followed me for a very long time. So much so that they were too deep I could not talk about them. I am not what would be considered a languages person. The reason behind English being my first language is that I was born in Australia. My parents—both Xhosa from the Eastern Cape— definitely wanted to raise me in a Xhosa speaking home. However, as other toddlers were speaking fluently, my ability to speak stalled. I could not speak at the same level as my peers. Truthfully, I could not really speak at all. This, of course, made my parents panic to which my paternal grandfather’s observation was that I could not handle being bi-lingual. With the international dominance of English and living in an English-speaking country, his advice was that it was best for my speech development to stick to one language, English. Unfortunately, this meant that my younger sister, whom I believe to have a better command of languages than I do, never got the opportunity to learn isiXhosa at home. I will note that over the years, I have noticed that both my parents do not actually speak isiXhosa all that well and have their own limitations as a result of leaving for exile at young ages. In China, my father would listen to the Eastern Cape-based radio station Umhlobo Wenene FM to not lose his comprehension of the language he grew up speaking. More recently, my mother did not speak at her father’s funeral because she was not confident in speaking her first language in front of a Xhosa crowd.

For years, I could not muster up the courage to say more than a greeting in isiXhosa to anyone. I understand the language but would only ever reply in English. Both my mother and my stepmother prefer speaking vernacular and they accepted my English responses. Years living in the US also meant that this type of dynamic was not abnormal. Returning to South Africa where I attended former ‘model-C’ schools with English as the language of instruction meant that I was socialised around Black people who also spoke English at home. To me, my situation was the norm growing up.

Over the years, I have slowly been able to have the language insecurity conversation with people around me. Not only South Africans but also Motswana, Namibians, Brazilians and Surinamese, to name a few. Additionally, I am noticing an opening up of this conversation online with videos of Africans living in the West and in South African literature. The stories may differ—not everyone grew up outside their home countries but the experiences of this insecurity are pretty much identical. This may come across as a middle-class indulgence. I recall very vividly the early days of a past relationship where my then girlfriend’s grandmother interrogated me on my background. “Are you from the township?”, she asked. She followed this question up by telling me that her granddaughter did not grow up in the township—which ended up not being entirely true. I understand where uGogo was coming from, a retired domestic worker, she was proud of how she raised her granddaughter. Her granddaughter’s successes were her successes. Colonial thinking showed itself when she, equally as proud, declared that her granddaughter did not grow up speaking her mother tongue, isiZulu. “She only learned Zulu for her final school exams” was her satisfied statement. This grandmother and my grandfather had the same colonial indoctrination that has now become a generational wound carried by their grandchildren.

From my experiences and observations, this indoctrination proliferates differently in contemporary society. Curiously, English speaking Black people are vulnerable to the same degree of ridicule—often by the very parents who made their children vulnerable, to begin with—as those who are Black and do not speak English with first language proficiency. My only guess is the ones that are immune to such mockery are those who are perfectly bi or multi-lingual. There are two general responses that I receive from people; 1.) A complete and utter shock that I am actually able to string together words into (short) sentences or 2.) a look of judgement when my attempt is not wholly successful. Do not even get me started on white people who want to comment on the validity of one’s Blackness for not being able to speak their mother tongues. I am always so envious of those who do not care a damn about making mistakes and how they may sound to other people. “I am trying”, is how they navigate through the world. This, the ability to forgive yourself for mistakes while learning and gaining confidence, is something I wish I had more of.

WhatsApp exchange between my cousin (a former isiXhosa teacher) and I

Culture is not static. Times are changing and I am noticing more and more young Black parents raising their children in English speaking homes. Conversely, I am also noticing that those who grew up like me are doing more to make sure their children speak vernacular languages. As for me, one of the many reasons why I am not too keen on having children is language. Yes, I believe I would do every and anything in my power to get my children to speak isiXhosa but what if I fail? What if I also panic, as my parents did, at my potential children’s delayed speech development? This is a risk I am not quite willing to take. Not yet at least. For now, what I would like for myself is to be able to write well in isiXhosa. There is a privileging of spoken vernacular over its written form. I may not ever feel comfortable speaking isiXhosa but being a much better writer than speaker—English included—I would like to be able to write full pieces in my mother tongue.

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