My interview yesterday morning, which revolved around the state of education in South Africa, started with a greeting in a language I did not understand. At least I think it was a greeting.
Maybe he thought that as a South African born journalist living in London, who goes by the Twitter handle, ‘staying focused on Africa’ I should speak an African language. Maybe he wasn’t talking to me. Anyway, I didn’t understand. I only speak one language fluently and could get by – at a push – in Afrikaans, which I regrettably tried as hard as possible not to learn growing in apartheid South Africa. I did though get a first in Latin at university. Oh and I can read the Korean alphabet which I learnt while teaching English in Seoul in the mid-90s – one way of ensuring you weren’t eating dog.
As a reporter for the South African daily newspaper Business Day in the late 90s, I was given the opportunity to learn Zulu. I was the only person from KwaZulu Natal in the class and my Zulu extended to handful of polite and useful phrases – helpful for a 10-year-old visiting a farm who wanted to milk a cow, or saddle a horse.
That Business Day tutor, a Zulu, instilled the fear of God in me. Her warrior-like gaze always settled on me, and the look suggested that I should know more, and certainly better. Perhaps that was just paranoia, but in my heart I knew she was right. Still I learnt a bit, practised a bit and then I left for England.
My experience in Europe has produced similar hand-sweating, heart-palpitating moments. Earlier this year, I attended a meeting at the EuroNews office on the Champs Elysee in Paris and was the only person in the meeting who didn’t speak French. So the meeting took place in English.
After that, I acutely felt the pain of a close South African friend and ex-colleague, who has recently taken a job in Paris, and is having to learn French in her 40s. When I told an English friend in London – who is fluent in French – about the experience she looked worried. Apparently the French only compliment you when you start using the subjunctive tense. Unsurprisingly my South African friend’s stress levels have been high; in her shoes I would have been suicidal.
I’m consistently struck by how multilingual the world has become and am in awe of anybody who can speak more than one language fluently. So I need to find somebody or something to blame for my inadequacy. Perhaps I can put this at the door of growing up in apartheid South Africa and being educated at a state school. We were after all banned from the world, living in a country at the bottom of the African continent and the last stop before the Antarctic.
But countless people in South Africa are multilingual. There are after all 11 official languages. Also, my nephew -a ‘born-free’ speaks fluent Zulu. So I can’t blame geography. I can only blame myself – and well, maybe, apartheid. It has a lot to answer for.
Help linguists, help
In London I have many bilingual and tri-lingual friends. A German friend doesn’t mince his words. He is married to my Argentinian friend and speaks both Spanish and English fluently. He says there is no reason why we ‘English’ can’t learn another language. It certainly isn’t stupidity. Perhaps we’re just lazy – after all the rest of the world is learning English so most of the time we can communicate and why should we try?
My friends’ daughter, my daughter’s best friend, speaks three fluently (maybe four). When she was about four I recall her father being in the shower and her mother in the kitchen. The one was yelling to the other in Spanish but could not be heard. The daughter translated in German: “Papa, she is saying hurry up”.
Aah another excuse then. I’m too old to learn another language. All the literature says the younger you are, the easier it is. That excuse makes me feel a whole lot better until I meet an Italian at the EU-Africa Business Forum. He only speaks five languages and tells me he hated learning English at primary school. “I was really bad at English. I just couldn’t get it,” he told me. He could have fooled me. However, once he’d grasped English, French, Spanish, German and Arabic followed. Apparently it’s much easier to learn one if you’ve mastered another and yes it’s helpful to live in the country where the language is spoken.
At that same Forum, my Tunisian colleague switches from English to French to Arabic as if they are all his mother tongue. Unlike the Italian he “completely fell in love with the English language”. You can tell. His written English is almost perfect and he expresses himself philosophically and eloquently on most subjects. I can’t keep up.
Also at that Brussels event I bond with a Spaniard who speaks French and English. She even laughs at my jokes. When I accidently write the European Band (aka Bank) of Reconstruction and Development in a press release and break into ‘we don’t need no reconstruction’ she finds it funny.
A few minutes later though I struggle to understand the Senegalese delegate asking me in French where he can find the speaker room. That isn’t so funny; it’s acutely embarrassing.
So are we ‘English’ lazy then? Thankfully I also meet a few English in Brussels who speak more than one language.
Also, in my own defence, while I’m very self-critical one thing I am not is lazy. Learning a language is a terrifying thing. But maybe now is the time; it’s not as if I don’t like to talk. The problem is: which one? An African language? Or maybe French – also spoken widely on both the continents I am closely linked to. Or perhaps Spanish because that, I believe, is easier and I have so many Spanish-speaking friends. Or Chinese, if I want to get ahead? Can anybody help?
Or I could just do that thing of living through my children. My daughter is learning – and loving – French and German at school. Let’s hope the British education system will deliver.