One Nation, Under 11 Languages


This entry’s prompt for the blogging abroad challenge: quotes (aka the concise phrases of wisdom from our host cultures). I wanted to have fun with this and put my calligraphic doodling hobby to use! Here is a quote  (with a bit of background) that demonstrates one of the many lessons South Africa can teach the world: linguistic diversity is awesome because it does not compromise cultures but continues their development!

South Africa is unique in many respects from having 3 capitals, 1 country (Lesotho and almost 2 if you want to consider Swaziland) nestled inside its borders, and 11 official languages plus South African Sign Language. Yebo/yes, that 11 is not a typo. The spoken Languages include Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Sepedi (Northern Sotho), Setswana, siSwati, Sotho, isiNdebele, isiZulu, Afrikaans, Xhosa, and finally English.

Here is an example of this linguistic spread using a word PCVs are quite familiar with (note many of the languages are similar and in this case both isiNdebele and isiZulu use ukuthula for the same concept). Trust me, the languages are still different. Last month, I participated in a dozen practice classes (Xitsonga, Ndebele, SiSwati, and Sepedi) for Language and Culture Facilitators (LCFs) at a Peace Corps training!

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“Peace” in the Linguistic order mentioned above. With the exception of Xhosa and Afrikaans, current SA PCVs speak each of these languages!

When people say South Africans speak English, it is misleading in a Peace Corps context. Yebo/yes, we do not aggressively work towards Portuguese or French proficiency in order to swear in (the case in other African posts) but there is a reason why we spend a good portion of PST in language classes. In the rural areas where we serve as PCVs, English is not a guarantee or the most effective way to connect with the communities. Nelson Mandela summarized this in his typical eloquence.

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“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.” ~Nelson Mandela

Even if people in the communities are capable of Basic English, I have yet to encounter a South Africa town where understanding the local language is a detriment. Making the effort to learn at least the basics is a small but powerfully gesture to communities where less than two decades ago, strong attempts were made to wipe out their cultures. Participating in their language helps preservation and healing from Apartheid. Plus I love seeing a gogo/granny’s eyes light up when they realize I know a few isiZulu phrases!

Understanding multiple languages is a source of national pride, from the noteworthy 5 languages included in the national anthem to a critical aspect to include on CVs (resumes). This is a completely different attitude than certain loud Americans (apparently unaware of their surroundings) who felt it was acceptable to panic over Spanish being incorporated in schools activities or public signage back in ironically New Mexico (where all major geographic landmarks have either Spanish or Indigenous names).

If these individuals came to South Africa, those tirades over the “Pledge of Allegiance” said in Spanish would seem rather sheepish. Go into any government institution and you will a trilingual display like this:

Tswana and English welcome to PTA

Setswana, English, and Afrikaans, directing visitors to the National Botanical Gardens in Pretoria (aka the City of Tshwane….it is a Setswana area.). This was protecting a fake waterfall with opaque views. The signage worked as no one braved the body of water!

Three languages on government signs and South Africa is still standing.


One thought on “One Nation, Under 11 Languages

  1. Pingback: Blog Challenge Responses Round-Up #10 - Blogging Abroad

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