Posted by: Catherine Weston | February 27, 2009

Rainbow Nation

Five international students

Five international students

Q: What do you call someone who speaks several languages? A: Multilingual.

South Africa has 11 official languages and most people speak at least two of them.

Q: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? A: Bilingual.

As far as mother tongues go, the greatest percentage of the population speak Zulu as their home language, followed by Afrikaans, Xhosa and English. Nozipho, a fellow student in my fellowship group has been patiently teaching me how to say ‘Sawu bona’, which is ‘good day’ in Zulu, her mother tongue. We’ve noticed both in College and by watching some TV how much people switch and mix up the languages. Someone may be talking mainly in Xhosa but will suddenly throw in a sentence from English. Nozipho tells me that it’s pretty common amongst young city dwellers as a kind of urban slang, but if she were to use the occasional English word in her home village, they would look at her very strangely! It’s a bit like the experience I once had in Anglesey when listening to the two other women in the village shop having a conversation in rapid Welsh with the exception of the words ‘chest infection’ which I distinctly heard in the middle.

Q: What do you call someone who speaks one language? A: English

Thankfully for us, in the light of the above, GWC is an English language medium institution. There are support classes for those for whom English is a second or third language. Mostly these are the students from other African nations which include Namibia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Sudan, Tanzania and Cameroon! Given South Africa’s recent history, a great deal of care is taken in College to ensure that everyone is treated with equal respect and mother tongue English speakers are encouraged to be patient and not unwittingly dominate class discussions.

At least I’m beginning to learn how to put the right kind of click in ‘Xhosa’ without my listeners dissolving into laughter.

More vocabulary: A vuvuzela is something you blow at football matches. It’s the local word for a plastic horn (do we have any other name for this? Football fans please let me know). I came across the word in a special FIFA World Cup supplement in the local newspaper (Capetonians are counting down to the big event in 2010). My Afrikaans speaking informant thought it might be a Zulu word, but he suggested it could also be from Fanagalo – a language mix arising out of the need to communicate across language divides when working together in the mines.

Pause for thought. In our Hebrew Narrative (ok, Old Testament stories if you prefer) classes we’ve been looking at themes in the Pentateuch. The curse of Babel was to confuse languages in order to curb the people’s arrogant attempts to be like God. At Pentecost there was a miraculous reversal of the curse as the gospel was preached in many languages. In Revelation we learn of a future time when people of every tribe, nation and language will be worshipping the Lamb. We’ll be hearing and understanding Zulu, Afrikaans, Xhosa and maybe even Fanagalo when we get there. Now there’s something to look forward to!



  1. that was great, catherine, thanks! 🙂

  2. I have found this via google. Judging by the photo, I’m sure you must be my friend from school in Warwick. If you are, please get in touch. I’m on facebook as Hazel Allbones. It would be great to hear from you.

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