Under Christian Nationalist education in the ‘80s I learnt English, but was only taught Afrikaans without any actual learning – mostly by being forced to read yellowing copies of Huisgenoot and the inarguably LSD-inspired Bollie Konyn en sy Vrolike Familie comics (as a rule of thumb, I consider anything featuring sentient rabbits to be the result of hallucinogenic drugs).
Bollie annoyed me, because in primary school I was already too old for this crap; it confused me because I sucked at Afrikaans; and it frightened me because Argh! Talking rabbits in overalls!
As for those other nine now official languages, they were never even spoken of in my school years, and to this day, I couldn’t list them all if you paid me. And to be brutally honest, I couldn’t even be bothered to look them up on Wikipedia. Sorry.
You see, as a politically concientised, pompous and self-righteous teen, I’d convinced myself that I didn’t pay attention in Afrikaans classes because I refused to learn “the language of the oppressor”, yadda yadda yadda. But now, nearly two decades into democracy, and still unable to speak any black African language beyond the words in the National Anthem, I have to admit to myself that I’m just a lazy, English-speaking son of a bitch.
Ideally, I’d like to be able to say, “Speak English or shut your trap” in all 11 languages, but I don’t care enough to learn even that.
Now you’d think that in this culturally diverse Rainbow Nation of ours my arrogant monolingualism would put me at a disadvantage, but nope, it doesn’t. Not for a nanosecond. Everyone speaks English. Anyone worth speaking to, anyway. And if something is said or written in another language, you can be sure it will be immediately translated – if it was worth saying or writing in the first place. Feel free to hate me all you want for saying that, but you know it’s true.
Which is not to say I don’t empathise with Jacob Zuma’s complaint that South Africa’s youth are rejecting the languages their own parents speak in favour of English. I totally get it. My own parents used to freak out if I so much as used a single slang word they didn’t understand (not that I blame them: ‘80s teen slang was about as cringe-worthy as our haircuts).
It must be exasperating for a parent to bring one’s child up in a rich, unique culture with a deep history and a language with its own poetry, only to have them finish high school sounding like an extra from Glee. That’s got to suck.
It seriously freaks me out to hear so many young South Africans speak English with a slight American accent (wtf, kids?), but if I don’t want to sound like an old fart I guess I’ll have to accept that, as Zuma does, and be relieved that at least they’re speaking English, sort of.
That way, at least they’ll be able to get a job, go overseas and ask for directions to a good restaurant anywhere in the world.
Which sounds like a lot more fun than sitting at home feeling proud about your silly heritage.
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