Language From
An African

21 February was International Mother Language Day, and judging by the hype on social media and the events organised in South Africa, I have to say, a great part of the country seems to be ‘woke’ to language issues. It does not mean we agree on standpoints regarding language, but there seems to be a sense of wanting to get involved in ensuring the longevity of our languages.


I celebrated the day at work, with all my language-practitioner colleagues who specialise in specific South African languages. As part of the celebrations, some of my colleagues jotted words on sticky notes in their languages, and stuck those onto their clothes, in order to teach/school other colleagues they met that day the words.  Joining in the celebratory mood, I attempted the same exercise, but with difficulty. So I ended up writing a sentence on a larger platform – an A4 page. While writing the sentence which was made up of several South African languages, it dawned on me…I’m a ‘woke’ language person.

Let me clarify, or rather, let’s discuss this ‘wokeness’ I’m referring to – not the grammatically incorrect past tense of awake – but the state of awareness about my linguistic state and how it affects my environment. First, we would need to ask, what is my language?  Culturally, since my father is Mopedi, I should be breathing Sepedi but I have been studying and learning in Sesotho since primary school. The assumption here is that I should therefore be mastering Sesotho, not so? Well, perhaps in reading and writing, but in speech I fail hands down. My Sepedi is also not too bad. Now my mother language is Xitsonga, which I speak fluently. See what I did there? Mother language?  I am not even going to get into the coloured side of the family and the Afrikaans influence – it will only confuse the story even more. To top it all, I grew up in SOWETO where we speak…uhm…ok.

According to a census from 2011 by Statistics South Africa about the languages spoken in SOWETO, the percentage of people speaking specific languages was as follows: 15.5% Sesotho, 8.9% Xitsonga, 37.1% isiZulu, 1.3% Afrikaans, 4.5% Tshivenda, and 2.3% English. IsiZulu is the most spoken language, followed by Sesotho, with English being spoken only by a small percentage. Of course, the latter is changing with the influence of social media and young people preferring to communicate in English instead of their mother languages. Moreover, the ‘variations’ of these languages as spoken in SOWETO, are different from the ones spoken in the provinces.

So the question remains – what is my mother language? Or perhaps I’m asking the wrong question.  Should I be poking questions around my family lineage so as to really know who I am? Thus far I know my Sepedi surname is a group areas act compliance issue – but it is actually a Tshivenda surname. But is it really Tshivenda? Should I be praising myself in Sepedi or Tshivenda?  This links to my second thought – should I perhaps ask questions about the functions of a language. One’s language is said to be linked with one’s identity and culture. Therefore, who am I? To a community, language is solely used for communicating, conveying and relaying messages, and therein, my confused multilingual state serves me and my community quite well.  

Not having one exclusive language to call my own made me feel excluded, but I guess that comes with living in SOWETO and having all these languages influencing your mother language. So to my colleague who pestered me throughout the day to choose one language as my own, I responded by choosing the South African/African language – which entails so much code-switching, but  at least permits me to speak to everyone in a variation of their own language, hoping my talking goes to their hearts, as stated by tata Madiba. And until I sort out the identity crisis, I will remain kolobe, ge ba mmona ba a petleka lefoko ba apa a tlogile, agee..

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