For many black children in rural villages who are taught English as a first additional language; it’s a big struggle, says the writer. File picture: Michael Rubinkam/AP
Unfortunately, a good grasp of English will make the life of a black child more bearable as they move to places where it is the only common language, writes Kabelo Chabalala.

The English language is one of the trickiest languages I have ever had to use daily. I will be honest, from when I was a young boy, there have always been challenges to communicate in the queen’s language. I am talking basic communication.

Today, the struggle is better, one can easily tell someone that they are exasperated, emotionally and otherwise without struggle.

However, I had to know that a baby pig is a piglet, but a baby dog isn’t a doglet but puppy. A baby cat is a kitten, and a baby lion isn’t a lionet but a cub.

I am really okay with not knowing the dog breeds, from a German shepherd, pit bull to whatever other breeds there are. No, I am not refusing to learn more about the English language. But I truly believe that for a language that isn’t my mother tongue, one has immersed himself widely to communicate meticulously and eloquently without sounding unnecessarily grandiloquent.

You see, that is my language at work. Even though at times I may not be in the mood to be twisting my tongue in this complex and loaded language, I do my best to speak it well and make sense.

Here is the crux of my issue; a black or white person who had the privilege to be taught English as a first language at school, and to speak the language every day at home shouldn’t be surprised or give me a weird look that says; “How can you not know that?” when I do not know a certain dog’s breed.

For many black children in rural villages who are taught English as a first additional language; it’s a big struggle.

Unfortunately, their classes are conducted in a colloquial manner and their teachers are also allowed to teach the various subjects at school in their native languages.

Many black people know more than three official languages of our country. That is quite something. We cannot say the same about our white counterparts. If they are to know or master a second language, it would be Afrikaans, French, or Italian. But they still have an advantage. They are taught in languages they speak at home.

Unfortunately, while English is the medium of instruction in South Africa, for black pupils in township and village schools, it’s a norm for maths, science, accounting and business economics to be taught partly in indigenous languages. While that is probably done to help pupils grasp the subjects, it can be disadvantageous to some level as their question papers are strictly set in the queen’s language.

It’s a struggle. It’s a communication barrier. It is a language barrier which creates learning gaps.

But so little is done to help a black child in such dire need.

We cannot overlook the reality. We need to find ways to ensure the black child has a richer and broader vocabulary to ensure they comprehend anything that is put before them in class and elsewhere.

I remember vividly how spending more time reading and writing helped me understand what was required of me in all that I was examined on at school.

I was not the smartest. I just had an understanding of a language that runs the world. English!

Reading should be a culture at school. Extra writing activities should be part of the curriculum. If our little brothers and sisters who are not offered English as a home language at school can be better equipped, their academic challenges would be halved.

We cannot afford to print or translate basic education textbooks to Setswana, XiTsonga or TshiVenda. We do not have the funds to equip teachers to teach the various school subjects in Setswana, IsiZulu or IsiNdebele. Therefore, we are stuck with English.

It is a language of the minority, but ensuring that most of the black pupils who are struggling with its basics are catered for is precisely what our country needs.

At least some people, like my friend Ziphorah Masethe, a black girl who was practically raised white, do not give me weird reactions when I refer to what she calls Uggs as “slipper-shoes” that look like ankle-boots; refer to her onesies as jumpsuits, or when I ask a waiter or waitron how to pronounce something on the menu. She probably looks at this plaas-japie and thinks “poor him, how did I get to hang around such a person”?

By growing the understanding and mastering of the queen’s language by the black child, we are not being less woke or less decolonised.

But we would be making the life of a black child less challenging and more bearable as they move to varsity and other places in life where English is the only common language of communication.

This way, we’ll at least place a black child a step further away from being disadvantaged, and a step closer to being on the same level as their white counterparts who continue to maintain an upper hand because the English language runs the world, sadly.

* Kabelo Chabalala is the founder of the Young Men Movement. Twitter, @KabeloJay; Facebook, Kabelo Chabalala; Email, [email protected]

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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