People often ask me why we started our trilingual school, and while I could list a page full of the reasons, top of that list would undoubtedly be for our own children. It’s the education I wanted to give my own kids.
I really want my South African children to speak Zulu. I want my sons and daughter to grow up understanding what is being said around them. I have lived in South Africa most of my life and I still walk around in a bubble of oblivion when I am at the shops, the petrol station or in a queue. I stare at my domestic helper blankly when she says something so simple in her native tongue, and I feel like an idiot and a fraud because although I have been through SA’s formal school system, I am still essentially monolingual in a country with 11 official languages. It is sad. It’s embarrassing. And I want to break the cycle. I want my children to know a future I will never have, a future filled with possibilities: The possibility of going anywhere they choose in this country and feeling understood, of feeling comfortable speaking another person’s mother-tongue and seeing the joy in their eyes because you’ve bothered to learn their language. To list ‘bilingual’ on my CV or skills, and to go about my work and not feel like others are talking about me.
So I am choosing to break the cycle and wherever possible, helping other families do the same. This is easier said then done though, because although South Africa provides many opportunities in which my children can practice their fantastic Zulu – my children are looking at my example and that is telling them so much more than what they are learning at school or with my domestic help at home. My two year old is completely bilingual (English and Zulu) and is very confident in the language. He is also a chatterbox. At this stage in his development he is happily learning new vocabulary and using it when appropriate without even thinking. My daughter (almost 4) is also very proficient in Zulu, but unlike her brother, has started noticing the fact that I do not speak Zulu when out and about, and is quickly following suite. While I am encouraging of their learning and often prompting them to greet and speak, they are going to eventually realize (as my daughter already has) that I don’t practice what I preach. And if mommy doesn’t do it – why should they?
So what are the chances that we are ever going to break the cycle? What are the chances I will ever raise Zulu-speaking adults if I am not one myself? Well, I won’t. Not unless I become a child like them and they see me try. They need to see me not just encourage them, but be motivated myself. I won’t be perfect, and probably never as good as they are, but they can have lots of fun ‘teaching mommy’ and helping me do the clicks or remember the words. I can turn to them when I am stuck and they will enjoy rising to the occasion of being smarter than their mum – and hopefully over time both mine and their Zulu ability will improve; theirs undoubtedly quicker than mine though.
In the end it’s about crossing boundaries – as a parent I have to cross the boundaries of my own pride and be humble enough to become a child in order for my child to see me learn. So they see by example that it’s important enough because even mommy tries.
And ultimately for my children to cross the boundaries of language into their future and be able to reach their fellow South Africans in a more meaningful way. Because it is true, “Speak to a man in a language he understands and you speak to his head. Speak to him in his own language and you speak to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela.