South Africa

White people should improve their proficiency in languages


For a while I found myself rather impressed with Democratic Alliance posterboy Chris Pappas because he was fluent in isiZulu, which is not his home language but which he learned perfectly in childhood.

How cool it was to hear a strawberry blond chatting away in the vernacular – and I presume he speaks Afrikaans as well.

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Then I thought, hold on, by the same token I should be equally impressed with Julius Malema, who is fluent in his Sepedi home language, as well as English and likely Afrikaans which he would have been taught at school, and probably Nguni languages (isiZulu and/or isiXhosa) and maybe even Swahili too.

Then I think back to my family’s cleaner from my youth who spoke English, Afrikaans, isiZulu and isiXhosa – yet still picked up my mess for a living.

And I realise, my goodness, my white people, you need to get your house in order on the linguistics front. English-speaking white people more than most, because we seem to think everyone should speak English simply because it’s something of a lingua franca on the global stage. (So ironic: lingua franca is Italian…)

To this purpose, every day I practice another lingua franca, Spanish – my own unique Spanish because I don’t think any native Spanish speaker would understand me.

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I’ve completed 1 062 days and counting via a language app. Even on Christmas. Feliz navidad. Even on my birthday. Feliz cumpleaños. Can I speak Spanish yet? Hardly. Hablo un poco español: I speak a little Spanish, just enough to impress people whose only Spanish exposure is from Speedy Gonzalez (Arriba! Arriba!) or Terminator (Hasta la vista, baby).

And 10 minutes a day simply isn’t enough. At best, it will take an English speaker 600 hours to reach proficiency in Spanish.

Meanwhile, it will take 900 hours to get there in Swahili, which Julius would like us all to learn for a united Africa. For proficiency in isiZulu or isiXhosa, we’ll need 1 100 hours, so with an hour a day we can all be there in a little over three years.

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We should count our blessings though, because none of these languages is as difficult to learn as English is. Happily, my fellow umlungus, a mere 200 hours of isiZulu will still get us to a passable level of fluency. And then we can talk.