Why should you learn an indigenous language?

English is widely accepted as the language of business in South Africa; it’s the language you need to master in order to get ahead, to get a good education and to climb the corporate ladder. So why should you invest time and effort in learning an indigenous language?

1. Quite simply, because you live here!

You know the drill… if you’re considering moving to Spain, best you learn a little Spanish if you want to blend in. Want to work in France? Learn French. It makes perfect sense.

The reasons for the domination of English in South Africa’s business and political spaces are complicated and tangled up in our history, but it is important to remember that close to 8 out of 10 people in South Africa have an indigenous language as a home language i.e. Zulu, Xhosa, Sepedi, Sotho, Tswana, Ndebele, Venda, Tsonga or Swati*.

This means that most of the people you will engage with in business, while getting an education, and in your community are most likely speaking to you in their second or third language. This leaves us open to miscommunication and misunderstanding.

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2. There is power in speaking to someone in their home language

It breaks down barriers, and opens hearts and minds. It’s a sign that you are making an effort to engage with someone else in their domain. It builds bridges and goodwill, and with everything that is going on in our country, it’s an invitation to connect.

3. Learn about other cultures

Learning a new language gives you insight into that culture; and not just in a Heritage Day kind of way. Culture is not just about the clothes people wear, or the food they eat; when you hear someone express themselves in a language they feel at ease with, it gives you insight into their identity; how they think and express themselves.

4. The landscape has changed, and you may be missing out.

Indigenous languages dominate in the social space; in private, between friends and family – mainly in townships and rural areas, for social and cultural activities. There is growing expression of cultural freedom and self-expression, which we see in the increasing number of comedy shows being held in vernacular. How many times have we heard people switching to their home language in order to bring a point home, during everyday conversations, during interviews, and in parliament?

There are certain nuances that come with understanding a language, that makes you an insider or an outsider when someone switches to another language. You either get it or you don’t. If you don’t speak an indigenous language, you are automatically excluded from the conversation. More to the point, you are excluded from engaging with a significant portion of the population in an incredibly meaningful way.

5. Because we are all in this together

With everything that is going on in South Africa: the crime, the high levels of unemployment, the water crisis, the politics, the blatant racist incidents that have been highlighted in the media; it would be easy to give up and despair.

It would be easy to shrug your shoulders and complain about everything that is going wrong in our beloved country. The harder choice would be to stay and work towards the dream of a functioning society; to do what we can to help turn things around.

And therein lies the rub. We didn’t get a how-to manual on how to do this. There are no ten-step programmes to help us deal with the trauma visited upon us by apartheid, and if the last 24 years has proven anything, it is that we need to do things differently if we expect different results.

We can only truly celebrate our differences when we develop an appreciation for those differences and start celebrating the fact that those differences make us who we are; which is a nation comprised of many groups with different cultures, and languages, but who are united in our humanity and this land we call home.

 6. Make new friends

Learning a new language gives you access to more people – it builds the bridges we so dearly need in order to become an inclusive society. The famous Nelson Mandela quote says it perfectly: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

People appreciate the fact that you’re making an effort. In 2018, it’s far from normal for people across the race spectrum to engage in an indigenous language, so when you do,  people are more likely to crack a smile, and more likely to want to talk to you.

7. It makes you smarter and more empathetic

Speaking in your home language feels comfortable and it comes naturally. You don’t struggle for words; the words just roll off your tongue.

Learning a new language however, can be a humbling experience. You need to first remember a whole new vocabulary, and then get comfortable with it; the sentence structure may be different, and learning to express yourself takes time and practice. You’re building new neural pathways.

It really also does make you more tolerant when other people make grammatical errors, and moreover, those grammatical errors make much more sense. Once you’ve made an effort to learn a new language, you will be more understanding when other people fumble with your language.

8. For the look you get when you roll off a sentence with ease

People love it! Because there are so few English and Afrikaans speakers who can hold down a conversation in the indigenous languages, it is still very unexpected, and when you do switch over, the look of surprise on people’s faces is priceless.


*  StatsSA Community Survey 2016.  




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