I started learning English when I was 3. I went to a school in Peru where the vast majority of my classes were in English – Geography, History, Biology, Physics – you name it. I was very blessed to have this type of bilingual education. At school, my teachers corrected our essays with dedication, making sure we did not make any subject verb agreement errors or that we used the right prepositions (although, I must confess I still struggle with ins and ons). I don’t know how I would have survived at Duke without them.
Regardless, my English is not perfect. And neither is my Spanish. Whenever I speak in Spanish, an English word will come to mind faster than the Spanish one I am looking for. Sometimes phrases like “Qué awkward!” (How awkward) will slip through my mouth. So, whenever people ask me what language I feel most comfortable with, I honestly think my answer would be Spanglish. I can’t help it.
However, I know that I am more fluent in Spanish. So whenever I go back home, I am excited to go to the comfort of talking incredibly fast, while others have to remind me to slow down, that there’s no rush. To the comfort of knowing that I can confidently talk about absolutely anything without making a long pause to think of the next word I’m going to say. To the comfort of being able to make an official phone call without worrying about my accent. But when I speak English, I know I am putting myself in a vulnerable position because I am prone to make mistakes.
Many South Africans do not have the linguistic comfort that I enjoy when I go back to my country. Many of them are not fluent in English. I didn’t see it as a problem until, along with my fellow District Six interns, I participated in a Constitutional Literacy Camp for high school students. For a significant portion of the participants English was not their first language. And this program, which involved a moot court competition, was a big challenge for them. I remember being in a group with five girls, where only one of them would stay quiet during the discussions while the others eloquently shared their ideas. When the facilitator encouraged this girl to contribute to the discussion, she opened her mouth and said something that was unintelligible for most of us. Undoubtedly, her mother tongue was not English
Mandy, the Head of the Education Department at the museum, made an announcement during ConCamp that really resonated with me. She told the participants that it didn’t matter if their first language was not English; that if they did not know how to express an idea in English, they should say it in their own language, and someone else would help with the translation. Mandy’s progressive announcement leveled the playing field for everyone in the room. But how many people, like Mandy, will take the time to understand the quality of her ideas, even if they are expressed in a different language? To what extent will English proficiency determine the type of job this girl will end up with or the type of wage she will earn?
In theory, South Africa has 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. However, in practice, as I have seen during my stay in Cape Town, it would be hard to survive a day in the city without being able to speak in English. Having 11 official languages is the way in which South Africa says sorry to all of the oppressed during apartheid. It validates their language, creating that safe space, that comfort that I feel when I go back home.
I really admire South Africa for its efforts to celebrate diversity in every sense of the word – racially, sexually, and linguistically. I have heard many South Africans proudly say that there is no other country in the world with 11 official languages. And they have every reason to be proud of this. I just wonder what the future will hold for South Africa’s linguistic diversity amidst the forces of globalization that are adopting English as a lingua franca.