my mother tongue...my mother's tongue

For most of my life Mama and I have been two peas in a pod. However, being the youngest of her three daughters has not been without its tensions. From a young age I understood that Mama and I lived in different worlds; hers a world of oppression and resistance and mine freedom and choices . Thanks to my formal education and socialisation, language became the obvious marker that we were always growing apart. I was educated in a former Model C, public girls school where English was the only language of instruction. The shallow isiXhosa lessons once a week did not recognise the language that came naturally to me. Attending a new school also meant moving to the leafy suburbs where white children asked their parents for permission to play with black children. The obvious danger of a complete immersion into English meant that by being proficient in the language and code at school, my mother tongue was in jeopardy.

The alarm bells went off for Mama while I was reading a paperback cartoon version of The long walk to freedom. I stumbled on Tat’uMadiba’s name and I asked Mama for help. She asked me to sound out the word and I responded “Roli-hala-hala” but she demanded to read it herself where she corrected me “Rolihlahla mnta’am!...sisiXhosa esi!” (Rolihlahla my child! This is a Xhosa name). Mama recalls with a bitter-sweet expression that I was an avid reader and writer but I wasn’t reading isiXhosa because no children’s literature was available in the school or the local library which meant that isiXhosa was slowly replaced by English and I was labelled the quintessential coconut. By the time I was 11 I was a monolingual English speaker with no idea of the estrangement I was yet to encounter.

Growing up in predominantly English speaking environments Mama never stopped speaking isiXhosa at home. She never made it explicit, but she was concerned about losing her child who was immersed in her second language. This meant that I lost the nuances of Mama’s language with the proverbs and nursery rhymes that carried a history I would never know. I interpreted Mama’s insistence on speaking isiXhosa as a sign of her backwardness. The modern world in television, internet and magazines didn’t acknowledge the language she used to get our attention. There was no place for my mother tongue in the world I was growing up in which meant no place for my mother in my world. My school teachers became the benchmark for aspiration in spite of the fact that Mama was the first teacher I encountered when I learned to be a fluent reader, giving me skills to reading for meaning that I still use to this day.

A transition began near the end of primary school when I began to understand the importance of language diversity in the Rainbow nation that South Africa was becoming. Our lives in the leafy suburbs was disturbed which meant we had to leave the predominantly white neighbourhood to experience another reality, living “down town” and later an informal settlement. For the first time I learned that you couldn’t ask a taxi driver for directions if you spoke to him in English, it was important to say “uxolo bhuti” . The women who sold fruit and veg at the taxi rank would ignore my sister and I unless we addressed them by saying “Molo mama”. I learned that the proverb “Ukuza kukaNxele” meant more than waiting in vain but its meaning was couched in a historical narrative. I began to realise that the world was a different place and the language I had regarded as irrelevant was the language I needed for survival. The smatterings of isiXhosa I knew (thanks to Mama) meant that as a bilingual speaker I was able to straddle two different worlds and make meaning of the South African reality that often appears as disjointed.

My current research into literacy in isiXhosa in Grade 1 classes has given me further understanding into the complexity of language learning in education and making meaning of the world. No one doubts the importance of English and the opportunities it allows, but the value of speaking and understanding the world in ones mother tongue has been underestimated. As an aspiring teacherI have interacted with children and they have taught me that their inquisitive minds can handle more than one language and they understand the relationship of social capital and languages even when they are in Grade 1.

I have re-educated myself and I now speak, read and write isiXhosa and Mama speaks English more often than she would like to admit. My knowledge of my mother tongue has not limited me in any way, it has broadened my world with stories and interactions with people English monoligualism would have limited me from.

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