Is that Zulu or Sotho?

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There are 11 official languages in South Africa. Emily shares some of her challenges and vulnerabilities in learning a new language or tow:

The title of this post displays a question that I have asked more times than I can remember. From my experience so far (three weeks already – woah!!), most people in my area speak either Zulu or Sotho (pronounced Soo-too). However, I am still fairly slow at recognizing when either language is being spoken. For the most part, the people at DAM [Diaconia AIDS Ministry] speak Sotho, so most of the time I can just assume that is what I am listening to. At the mall today, however, a salesperson started a conversation with me and tried to teach me how to say “How may I help you?” This was when my “go-to question” came out. Turns out, she was teaching me Sotho, which was a relief for me because that is what most people have been trying to teach me. Rather than attempt to learn both Sotho and Zulu, I think that one new language is enough for me. 🙂

In my short time here, I have become partly fascinated and partly annoyed with languages.  I am fascinated because I have sat in on so many conversations of which I had no idea what was being discussed. There have been many times when I have been the only person who doesn’t speak the language at all. I have had people try to teach me words, then chuckle when I try to pronounce them. I am also frustrated because I have noticed that I am literally the only person I know here that only speaks one language. Every South African I have met speaks their mother tongue as well as English. The German volunteers I work with speak German and English. I only speak English.

To add to that frustration (and fascination), the English I grew up with is not the same as what is spoken here. I have created a list of a few examples, which is both amusing and confusing for me and others:

-It’s not “I have to go to the bathroom,” it’s “I have to use the toilet.”
-It’s not “over there,” it’s “that side.”
-It’s not “six thirty,” it’s “half-past six.”
-They aren’t “diapers,” they are “nappies.”
-They aren’t “french fries,” they are “chips.”
-It’s not “pop,” it’s “cold drink.”
-It’s not a “sweatshirt,” it’s a “jersey.”

These language differences, whether between American English and South African English or between English and Sotho, are both barriers and opportunities. This experience is giving me the opportunity to learn a new language (or two?!) as well as discover new ways of communicating.

I’m hoping that my time here will open my eyes and ears to the multitude of languages around me. I pray that I become more comfortable with using Sotho in conversation, and that people continue to be patient with me as I learn. I also hope and pray that people don’t get annoyed with me as I continually ask whether they are speaking Zulu or Sotho.

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One thought on “Is that Zulu or Sotho?

  1. Hi Emily, I love what you wrote. I’m Abby’s mom writing back. Abby’s brother Ben used to tell a “joke” that isn’t. He would ask..what do you call someone who speaks three languages? answer – trilingual, What do you call someone who speaks two languages? answer – bilingual – what do you call someone who speaks one language? answer – American. sigh, truer than I wish. Good for you for all you are learning and doing! Blessings. Sue

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