This past week I’ve had my fair share of confrontations regarding my inability to speak anything more than English. I can give you a million excuses on why – and I will share a few – but I can no longer deny that my English brain has given me unwarranted privileges in South Africa.He stared me down intensely as he spoke. He was voicing his anger and frustrations to me in Tswana. I had to ask him what language it was because I had no idea. All I could I do was sit there and take it. I couldn’t understand a word but I felt the pain in his rage. He knows four other languages that he can speak more fluently than English but every time I spoke to him he was forced to quickly switch his thinking into English to accommodate me.
I know it irritates those around me to always having to interpret conversations – and lyrics –just to make me comfortable. But what’s more comfortable to you?
Going to my model-C schools (that over the years, transformed to include a substantial number of black students) English was the only acceptable language. Speaking in vernacular was assumed to be rude because it excluded the teachers and other students from the conversation. Instead of teaching us Zulu so we could all accommodate each other, my primary school didn’t offer a Zulu class that was anything more than a free period. It wasn’t a subject we were expected to take seriously. So, I didn’t.
My friends never engaged with me in anything besides English and I never bothered to ask them to. I grew up in an English bubble and never ventured out of my comfort zone.
Then I had a slightly different conversation; what makes Casper more popular than AKA? What made him more relatable? His success story is one of rags to riches that most cannot help being inspired by -even if his music and dance moves aren’t your favourite. Amidst the debate the real reason Casper was more relevant finally came up: race and language.
Is AKA too English?
“Listening to Casper, we don’t have to overthink and translate as much,” they agreed. His music tells a story that more South Africans can identify with and appreciate without having to decode language barriers.
To me, language in South Africa is a topic just as crucial as race and racism. Why is English acknowledged so extensively around the country? I see Afrikaans translations more often than any other language. Do our language privileges need decolonisation too?
At this point, I know I’ve let down far too many friends by not making an effort to learn their language. I’ve had the privilege of speaking only English. I call it a privilege because people just like me have been told that we don’t really have to learn anything else, instead others will – and are obliged – to adapt to me.