body politics: my (african) tongue

“Speak if you can...what are you?” (Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 3)
These are Macbeth’s words when he first encounters the witches. These words have always interested me because Macbeth asks the witches to speak in order to know who they are. Macbeth assumes that they have the ability to speak and that they will speak a language he will understand and thus the mystery of who they are will unfold. Throughout the play, Macbeth’s interaction with the witches is through a meaning making process where he is desperate to understand their mysterious proclamations about his destiny. It is through speaking, language, communication, that Macbeth and the witches come to understand each other or not...hence the tragedy that befalls Macbeth?

When we speak, we inevitably convey meaning about who we are and what we believe, hence language and who we are—our identity (a portmanteau word)—cannot be separated. What is even more fascinating is that people will use the discourse we use, the jokes we make, whether we use slang or expletives or not, as clues for understanding who we are.

I have always been fascinated by the word “mother-tongue” (see blog post April 20 2011). My mother-tongue is isiXhosa and English is my primary language. The interplay of these languages in my life and how they have formed my reality adds to the value of being bilingual. Language has always been a tool for expressing myself and thoughts within contexts with people who attempt to understand who I am based on the language I speak or the words I use. A pertinent example are the comments people make when I speak isiXhosa. My own mother often comments that ndikhumsha isiXhosa, I speak isiXhosa with an English accent and this often leaves people wondering about whether or not I am Xhosa (culturally). When I speak English, many people also feel compelled to tell me “You speak English so beautifully...where did you learn to speak such beautiful English?”(I often never know what to make of this hence I haven’t even blogged about it yet.)

Something as small as the tongue allows the opportunity for communication to be more than functional but can also lend itself to existential questioning about who we are in the world and how we experience the world through language. The complexity of the physical body, how we learn to speak and use language, is both a biological and cultural process we possibly take for granted. Learning language also means learning the social rules about the language and the people who speak it. My tongue means language and language means perceptions and communicating what I know about the world and who I am; a risky process of exposing myself and my thoughts.

I recently attended a language practioner’s conference in East London. People were sharing views about the work they do encouraging literacy and language policy for the development of African languages. This was an opportunity for people who are also working with projects related to mother-tongue-based-bilingual education to share their research. I presented research on my Masters research looking at the teaching of reading in classes where children are learning in their mother-tongue, isiXhosa. The two days ended in reflections about what the future of African languages is in educational institutions and how this frames the multicultural and multilingual project in South Africa. What will it take to shift the dominance of English in the education system? And what will it take for the use of African languages in the education system to be seen as something beneficial for all people who consider themselves South Africans? Surely the development of African languages through the education system, should be everybody’s concern, not only speakers of the African languages?

The irony of this blog post is that I am writing about the use and marginalisation of African languages, in English and not isiXhosa...a further complexity of choice and language use. It’s a complexity I am making peace with because the people who have access to this blog probably read English and not isiXhosa.

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