South African dominant languages

Learning isiXhosa

Molweni, ninjani?

or Hello, how are y’all?

That’s about all I’ve learned since I started an isiXhosa language course last week. I am so excited to take this class, since isiXhosa is spoken by almost 18% (or 7.6 million) of South Africans—the second largest language and cultural group in South Africa!

The first thing to know about the isiXhosa language is that it is isiXhosa. The single word “Xhosa” has been adopted by English speakers, but the language is isiXhosa, the people are amaXhosa (or umXhosa for one person), and kwaXhosa is the place where amaXhosa live.

isiXhosa is difficult! In our first class, we spent two hours just learning how to greet one person, a woman close to your age (whom you call your “sisi” or “sister”), a male close to your age (whom you call your “bhuti” or “brother”), an older woman (“mama”), an older man (“tata”), or more than one of all of those.

Easy enough right?

Imagine that you are entering a room full of people, and that you’d like to greet all of them. You’d use the phrase I started with above: “Molweni (hello), ninjani (how are you all)?”

But who answers? Well that depends on who is the eldest, the most important, the head of the family, or the top of the command chain in a business or organization. That single person answers for everyone. So, one of your first jobs when entering a room is to figure out (and quickly) who you’re actually talking to! It’s all about respect. Ask the wrong person, and you could have trouble.

This is also true when it comes to how one eats, what they eat, and where they sit when eating. Better to be older in this case!

isiXhosa is a Bantu language and utilizes three clicks among other phonetic, tonal sounds. There’s the:

click — suck in with your tongue at the back of your teeth (as in expressing annoyance)

click — with your tongue at the roof of your mouth, suck in (as in a clock’s tick tock)

and the x click — pull your tongue from your upper right jaw (as if urging on a horse)

Now, try saying isiXhosa with the ‘x’ click.

As an American expat, isiXhosa may not be the most practical long-term language for me to learn, but I’m taking classes for a number of other reasons. It’s a great way to learn more about a culture of South Africa that I know very little about (info that I hope to share here on this blog). The class is also presented to us English speakers as a way to bridge the racial gap. South Africa has a wild history of racial segregation, and although apartheid ended some twenty plus years ago, systemic (and language) segregation still remains. English is only one of the eleven official languages in South Africa, but without it, options for jobs, housing, aid and other resources can be severely limited. Therefore, many non-native English speakers are forced to conduct a lot of their lives in the lingua franca of South Africa, English, while the opposite isn’t necessarily true (despite native English speakers making up a considerably smaller portion of the population).

With discrimination still an issue, many people ask the question What can I do? Maybe learning another person’s mother tongue is a good place to start. As a language teacher myself, I know there is power in being able to communicate with someone in their own language. As my isiXhosa teacher says, “When you learn my language, you enter my world. Otherwise, I am only entering yours.”

Plus, Nelson Mandela spoke isiXhosa, and that’s pretty cool.

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