Your mother tongue is a blessing; it is your responsibility as a parent to ensure that it is passed down to the next generation.

My great, great, grandfather arrived in Africa to start a new life. English was the language of the new land that Cecil Rhodes had claimed for the Queen of England and so Harold Zimmerman forsook his native German in favour of the Queen’s English. He spoke to my great grandmother in heavily accented, broken English and so the cultural inheritance that was to be my grandmother’s, my mother’s and possible mine too, was lost. Had I possessed even basic German, I would have had opportunities open to me that I cannot even imagine – the chance to study at a German university? – the chance to work for a German company in South Africa? – or even just the link to the world that my ancestors came from? – I guess I will never know.

I suppose it is understandable that an immigrant starting a life in a new land would adopt a new mother tongue. It might be hard to believe, but in the mid 1600’s, America was the most multilingual society in the world however, the need to develop a national identity drove everybody to adopt English as their first language regardless of their ancestry. America has been successful in forging an identity for itself but has it also not lost something of equal, or even greater value?

In South Africa there are eleven official languages; this can be perceived, as a burden in some ways but it is also a source of great cultural heritage. These languages need to be valued, nurtured and passed on intact to future generations as a cultural inheritance. Recently I have been astounded at how many parents do not speak to their children in their mother tongue; an Afrikaans couple that speak to each other in Afrikaans but to their children in English, A Zulu father who has never spoken Zulu to his children. Is this a deliberate decision or is it merely the path of least resistance; the current of popular culture that is just too strong to fight? I understand that English is an important language to speak well, but do you not think that your children will learn English anyway from school and society? By denying your children their heritage language are you not taking more from them that you are giving? While it is a shame that my forefather did not pass German on to his offspring in Africa, all is not lost for German culture. However, you can be sure that if you, as a South African speaker of Afrikaans, isiXhosa or one of our other unique languages, do not pass your mother tongue on to your children it will be the end of the line. Your language will die with you! You are the guardian and the trustee of your heritage; don’t squander your children’s cultural inheritance.

It is crazy to think that at the time of my great, great grandfather’s arrival in Africa, German was considered a dead-end language and Germany did not have much of a future. Why would anybody want to speak German anyway? How wrong this thinking turned out to be. Does this sound familiar?