Analysis

What it’s like to grow up as a black South African who only speaks English

Firstly, I’d like to point out that I understand the kind of privilege that comes with being able to speak English fluently. I know it serves as an advantage in many aspects of my life and I’m certainly not here to complain.

Rather, I’d like to shed light on some of the race-based assumptions that can be made in South Africa and my personal experiences. I think many South Africans can recall a time when their race, gender, class or home language heavily influenced a situation.

A little bit of background…

My Zambian parents moved to South Africa with my older brother in 1995. Shortly thereafter, Luale Joyce Monze (me) was born on May 27, 1996. I was destined to grow up in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg and remain somewhat ignorant for a very long time.

Simply put, I can only speak English because it’s the one language that I was frequently exposed to as a child. I also wasn’t an enthusiastic Afrikaans or isiZulu learner in school, which I deeply regret. In fact, learning new languages didn’t seem that important to any of my peers in primary school or high school. We used to dread the thought of an hour-long isiZulu class in a hot and stuffy classroom. Most of us lived in a world where we could speak to our friends and family in English and learning other languages wasn’t that important.

We were wrong.

South Africa has 11 official languages which means being monolingual is bound to have its limitations. The South African government’s website describes the linguistic make up of South Africa using statistics from the Stats SA 2018 community survey.

The survey outlines that across the country, 25,3% of individuals speak isiZulu as a home language. Moreover, 14,8% speak isiXhosa and 12,2% speak Afrikaans. On the other hand, 8,1% speak English, as a home language, a significantly smaller percentage. It’s important to note that these figures may have changed since 2018. However, the statistics suggest that English is prioritised in professional, business and academic spaces, however, it’s often side-lined in South African homes.

I can recall countless occasions where someone saw my appearance and confidently greeted me in isiZulu or isiXhosa. In situations like this I’ll try my best to navigate some small-talk before shamefully confessing that I can only speak English. Thereafter, I’ll be met with replies like, “You should learn to speak your language my girl.” Firstly, I 100% agree. Secondly, I’m not even sure what I consider to be my language.

As I mentioned earlier, my parents are Zambian. They can speak English, Tonga and navigate other Zambian languages. However, much like me, they remain stumped when it comes to South African languages. To this day my dad will still say, “Sorry, I’m not from here,” when spoken to in any South African language that isn’t English. We’ve been living here for over 20 years so I’m not sure if that excuse is still valid.

For decades, social scientists have been exploring the connection between language and culture. Prominent cultural theorist Stuart Hall believed that language and culture are deeply connected. Language can be considered the spokesman for culture. It influences our understanding of the world and how each individual makes sense of things.

This suggests that there is a deep connection between the languages spoken in South Africa and the existence of a unique South African culture. So, where does that leave people like me? Are we simply not a part of the culture at all?

Regardless of everything I’ve said thus far, I certainly identify as a South African. Yes, my parents are Zambian. In fact, they are the proudest Zambians I know. However, living in South Africa is the only life I’ve ever known and I wouldn’t change that for the world. Furthermore, if there’s anything I’d like people to take away from this, it’s to encourage your children to maximise on any opportunity that they might have to learn other languages.

We all have layered identities and sometimes different aspects of our identities create internal conflicts. At times, I’m not sure where I fit in. I feel like a fraud for calling myself South African when my family is from Zambia. I feel like a sub-par black person for yapping away in “well-spoken” English and staring blankly when someone speaks to me in isiZulu. I often have to remind myself that we’re living in a globalised time and these thoughts simply aren’t true.

OPINION: Luale Monze