[OPINION] The language bridge

Growing up in an English-speaking family on the Cape Flats we had contact with many Afrikaans-speaking people. With hindsight, we seldom had to speak in Afrikaans as most people would defer to English for us. I feel some shame now remembering how I took it for granted everyone could speak better English than I could speak Afrikaans. I never made a real effort to try.

Many children spoke Afrikaans in the playground but sat in English-medium classes. The actual Afrikaans class at school, sadly were treated like less than. At school for the foundation phase and up to grade 6 it was a commonly held view that the Afrikaans-speaking children were sidelined. I could guess why, but I may be wrong, so I won’t! Being English-speaking and a young child, this is how it was, it had little to no impact on me and so I lived alongside it without challenging the status quo.

I then moved to a private school where the children from the Afrikaans families never claimed that they spoke perfect English and were rather still about any Afrikaans heritage. This was during the height of apartheid where many of us now associated Afrikaans with the oppressive government and all the architecture of apartheid. It was a time we were not ready to depoliticise Afrikaans.

Thank heavens we seem to be moving away from the thinking and more and more people and communities are identifying with Afrikaans, identifying with different dialects of the language and delving into its long and deep history. It has been researched that 34 Afrikaans words existed in South Africa before Jan Van Riebeeck arrived here. I think that is something to think about!

I did not do too badly in Afrikaans at school and always had passionate, interested teachers. Mrs Botha-Reid was one of those teachers; she spoke beautiful English and Afrikaans and told us how she married someone from an English family, hence the surname Reid.

As a young adult I made better effort to speak Afrikaans when appropriate. This means I now endeavour to think in Afrikaans and let the words flow. Most people appreciate my effort and often we agree to speak in our own languages before I destroy theirs.

It often takes me back to a business trip in Burundi. Our general manager’s wife spoke not one word of English. She and I spent our dinner clasping hands, smiling and nodding using body language to communicate about the food, weather and time. It was a silent acknowledgement of our common humanity. We probably communicated more authentically than if we had spoken words.

In South Africa more people speak Afrikaans than English. I accept responsibility for being quite arrogant about English and thinking it should be a language everyone should speak. A visit to China puts paid to any illusions of grandeur we may have about English. Nobody speaks English; there are no signs or symbols to indicate restrooms, bus stops or taxis. You quickly understand that English is not a popular or universal language. It was educational and quite frightening, for that minute.

I spent this past week at a national Afrikaans festival for the arts. I watched 14 plays, productions and panel discussions in Afrikaans. By the third show I was unaware of the Afrikaans as it just all made sense. Somewhere in my subconscious, everything Mrs Botha-Reid taught me sits untapped. Clearly my prior insecurities were soaked in my prejudice towards Afrikaans. During my life I have attempted to learn Latin, Xhosa and French. None with any measure of success. What I got from all the Afrikaans interactions over last week is that we are all in this together.

The topics of the plays were intense yet unifying. The themes were common to what we all at some time in our lives stumble upon or have foisted upon us. Family disputes, relationship breakdowns, all measure of dysfunction, infidelity, domestic abuse, patriarchy, racism, midlife crises, depressed parents, disempowered mothers, authoritarian fathers, adult children who stay with their aging parents out of obligation and those who go to find peace and freedom, death, life and living. In all communities, we find our humanity and the ties that bind in the experiences through families and the world around us.

The language is insignificant. We must reach for the connections that unite us as human beings. We are already experts at finding evidence that we have little in common. With this, I beg to differ.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn