Julius Malema is right about one thing: whites don’t make enough effort to learn the languages spoken by other South Africans. The flamboyant Economic Freedom Fighters’ criticism, in Parliament last week, could more fairly be levelled at English speakers specifically – white Afrikaners are often fluent in English at least. Even at the height of Afrikaner nationalism, Afrikaans business people were invariably bilingual, while this was unusual among their English-speaking counterparts.

But undoubtedly both English and Afrikaans South Africans are unlikely to have a good command of one of the indigenous languages, while blacks are frequently multilingual.

The issue is worth exploring in a polyglot country where communication suffers from language and cultural barriers.

But the problem is far more complex than Malema claims. He reportedly told Parliament last week: “All black people continue to learn the languages of white minorities as part of our attempt to reach out to them and create friendship but with very little attempt from their side to at least learn one of our African languages because they have a wrong mentality that we must suck up to them.”

Julius just can’t resist the froth.

But that’s where he gets it wrong. English is the language of business and the languages we learn, other than our own, are largely determined by a commercial imperative. English is the lingua franca of the workplace, and not just in South Africa.

A lingua franca is a language commonly used by non-speakers of the language to communicate with each other. This is often because they are unable to communicate in their disparate native languages but also because their languages may lack the technical vocabulary of the workplace.

The motivation to learn a lingua franca is therefore strong and our education system, such as it is, is geared to teaching English.

This is not to say that whites shouldn’t make the effort to learn other languages. The more languages people know the richer their lives are. But the practicalities dictate that we deal with first things first: earning a living. And other things often regrettably fall by the wayside.

Moreover, there are far greater challenges for whites attempting to extend their linguistic repertoire because local languages are not always on the school curriculum. And there are still generations of whites who were educated in apartheid schools where the idea was never even floated.

Outside school, language offerings are limited. Having made three attempts to learn Zulu, I speak from experience. As I am not a talented linguist, each introductory course left me far short of proficient. Apart from occasional words I was little closer to understanding my black compatriots than before. And my attempts to converse in Zulu were greeted with loud laughter – hardly an encouragement.

On each occasion I sought a follow-up course but on each basis, only introductory courses were available. Presumably there is little demand for follow-up courses outside a university – a measure of the apathy of English speakers about the value of other languages.

So much for my excuses.

Ironically, in South Africa, English was seen as the language of liberation in the dark days of “Bantu education”. While the use of a mother tongue is important in early education, it was used by the apartheid government as a way to seal off students from the dangerous influence of English. The government of the day believed the black population would not know it was oppressed until it was told as much by English-speaking “agitators”.

In the new dispensation different issues arise, particularly the poor quality of education in which language barriers play an important part. But there is a limit to what can be achieved in a country with 11 official languages, as well as a range of unofficial languages and informal urban vernaculars, and limited resources.

The cost is not just in training teachers in the languages. More costly is the enhancement and development of languages which lack a technical vocabulary so that they can be used to promote scientific literacy and equip students to work in a modern economy.

A practical approach would be to increase support for language teaching in schools. While science and mathematics are the priority for the economy, pupils will battle to master these subjects as long as their language skills fall short.