Neither Xhosa nor English but Both

Posted on Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012 under Blog, Recent Posts.

Tumi read Lila and the Secret of rain by Jude Daly and David Conway in isiXhosa last week! I was a proud mama, boasting to my friend who came to Cape Town for holidays. He is my homeboy and my facebook friend who has been inspired by the work we do with children in the Vulindlela Reading Clubs in Cape Town and Nal’ibali Reading clubs nationwide. The whole family listened with pride as she read the book not just fluently but with understanding from the beginning to the end. Mandla listened with surprise and observed as I joined her in some parts reading together with her and in some parts asking her to imagine the sad things that happen in the world that Lila could have told the sky so that it would bring about rain. In the end, I felt I had succeeded in getting my two children to read in three languages, including their mother tongue.

Like many African language speaking professionals, I bought a home in a suburb where isiXhosa is not spoken nor offered in schools. When I became a parent, the challenge I faced was whether I would take my children to a township school where they would get an opportunity to learn through their home language, at least in the first three grades. But as we all know all African language dominant schools change  to English Medium from grade four onwards. I am aware from research that there are problems in forcing children to learn through a language they do not speak, a language not spoken by their parents and a language they do not think in.  I also know about literacy problems in South African Schools in general, which are worse in poorer schools where most children experience at best three years of mother tongue and who change to English medium after a year of English introduction. Yes, I was aware of the two tier education system, where schools for the rich perform better than those of the working classes.

I wanted my children to learn their home language but I also wanted them to learn other things too. Like many of my friends, I wanted to send my children to well-resourced schools, to schools where there was a strong culture of teaching and learning and I wanted them to benefit in other ways too— learn music, do sports, swimming, drama, chess, you name them. Besides, our home is in a majority Afrikaans speaking area, where the schools are English mainly, Afrikaans and English or Afrikaans mainly.  I also knew that historically, these schools were more advantaged than those in the township and their results showed more academic success as determined by matric standards than those of African language speaking children in the townships. I just did not want to sacrifice my children.  After all every parent wants the best for their children and these schools seemed to offer all the things I wished for, except isiXhosa.

The decision was even more complicated for me than other parents. It became more of an ethical and moral issue. How could I preach mother tongue based bilingual education for many African Language speaking children and yet take my children to schools that offered only English and Afrikaans?

After a lot of introspection I consciously wrote down aspirations for my children. Logistically, it was not easy for me to travel from a suburb to a township and then to my work. Ideally children should attend schools where they live. After all the schools in my suburb needed to cater for African language speakers too, seeing the language profile has changed in these communities and therefore the school language policies also need to change with the times.

First, I decided that I was going to keep the children home until they turned three, when they could by then speak isiXhosa. I had to be patient, even when I was dissatisfied with the child minders. I had seen some of the children who had gone to crèche very early who then had more time to learn English than their mother tongue. Their parents often left them at crèche from as early as seven o’clock in the morning and picked them up just before six o’clock when they came back from work. Clearly, there is little time for parents to bond and cuddle with their children after work, when there are other household chores competing for the parent’s time. In the end, these children, even if they understand isiXhosa, it is easier for them to respond to their parents in English. Parents become tempted to speak to their children in English. It is less time consuming.

I wanted my children to be different. I knew it was going to be difficult to get them to learn through their mother tongue in an Afrikaans and English community.  I was also disappointed that they did not offer isiXhosa at least as a subject. Not even the isiXhosa dominant language schools teach in isiXhosa anyway, so I consoled myself and thought it was better for my them to be taught ‘good’ English by mother tongue speakers if not well trained second language teachers. Most African language dominant schools do not have English second language specialist teachers also. So I kept the children home for at least three years to learn isiXhosa before sending them to crèche. I made a pact with all members of my family that we would speak in IsiXhosa to the children at all times, and we did.

Secondly, I spoke about my desire for isiXhosa to my friends with the hope that if we did not get IsiXhosa home language in the schools in our area, we could request special classes, failing which, we could organise ourselves to teach isiXhosa to our children. But one of my friends said, “We’ll see from you!” Another friend said, “Our children need to learn Afrikaans because they speak isiXhosa at home.” I was disappointed with the idea that isiXhosa needs to remain the language of the home, church and family. The people were not questioning why our languages need to be confined at home when English and Afrikaans speaking children learn their languages from the cradle to university.

At our gatherings, my friends continued to speak English to their children and the children spoke English to my kids. I was getting more frustrated.  But I did not lose hope. I spoke to a few of my friends about the possibility of taking our children to a isiXhosa  dominant school, where we could pay the amount of money they pay in private and ex-Model C schools so that we could improve  things in the school and make teachers more accountable, while also contributing our skills to the schools, so that those who majored in computer science, could equip the teachers with computer skills and those who studied sports, could help teachers develop sports, and of course, I would contribute to teacher training in biliteracy development. My friends heard me, but continued with their lives.  But it was at another friend’s gathering when my daughter had gone to the toilet and called out to me that the toilet would not flush. She said, “Mama, ayigungxuleki le toilet.” One of my friends commented on how deep the word my child had just uttered in isiXhosa. I was happy, but still unsatisfied.

Because I specialise on children’s literacy and biliteracy development at my work, I read every night to my children in isiXhosa. Because there were few original isiXhosa children’s books then, I relied on storytelling and on translated books and those we produced bilingually at my work. There were more books in English than in isiXhosa. They also had lovely children’s rhymes and songs, but there were none available in isiXhosa. I looked for those that had equivalent rhymes and songs in isiXhosa. I recited isiXhosa rhymes I knew, such as ‘katana, katana’, ‘Itipoti-I’m a little teapot’, Unomathemba, umvundlana othile and wrote them down. Some of those we made at work helped a lot, like bharagwana, bharagwana, Nali isele emva kwendlu kabawo, Inkwenkwana ethile. I sang songs like iph’in’inja yam encinane, Thula bhabhana, with the children and wrote them down. My children enjoyed bath time. They enjoyed bedtime songs and the wolf and the rabbit trickster stories. This carried on, even when the children started at an English medium crèche at the age of three, after which we sang songs and read stories in both isiXhosa and English.

But as soon as Tumi began school, something changed. Suddenly, she refused to do anything in isiXhosa both oral and written.  I remember the human rights public holiday six years ago, when Tumi was writing the word ‘book’, and I offered to write ‘incwadi’ next to it.  She cried and told me she never wanted to write in isiXhosa again. I was sad, very sad but not surprised. The isiXhosa speaking children at her school spoke English to each other. She wanted to be like them. I was hurt, hurt by the parents whose children were beginning to influence my child. But then, it was human rights after all, so I gave in feeling defeated. It was not until the evening of the same day at bath time, when I affirmed her about how different and good in languages she was compared to other children who only could only function in one language. I was careful not to force her to speak isiXhosa at the same time, so I offered to read in English that night. But to my surprise she asked me to read her favourite story, Rumpelstiltskin in isiXhosa. She loved the isiXhosa version more than the English version, because, at the end of the story, in the English version, Rumpelstitskin stamped on his feet and disappeared in the hole, while in the isiXhosa version, he flies through the window in a flying spoon and often she would look at the window as soon as we got to that part of the story. From then on, we made a pact to alternate reading in isiXhosa and in English daily not unless she loved the book and wanted me to read it repeatedly for the whole week and whole month. I had learned from Mem Fox, the author of The Reading Magic who suggested, first reading the favourite book and then offering to read a new book, that way, introducing another favourite. We also wrote in letters to each other. We wrote when we did not want others to hear our secrets. We wrote grocery lists and stories. We kept an interactive journal too where we wrote about everything including school. When she drew, we wrote sentences about her pictures. When she scribbled, I wrote conventionally for her. All this time, I was sitting beside her, paying attention, talking about the two languages and explaining the differences between the sounds ‘a’ and ‘u’, ‘a’ and ‘e’; ‘i’ and ‘e’ in both languages. In no time, when she had discovered that isiXhosa had regular spelling- you write the way you speak, it became easier for her to read and write in it. She even wrote letters to my colleagues’ children and my colleagues Neville Alexander and Carole Bloch. She told them about her ability to write in three languages and her favourite books. She wrote about why she could not make it to the reading club. By grade 3 she could construct a two page letter in isiXhosa and English.  Her brother Thabiso learned the same way too. We always labelled things, pots, stove, bathroom etc in two languages. I bought a tall book shelf for them. Every time I came home from work, I brought them a book, one in isiXhosa and one in English and sometimes Afrikaans. It was not sweets that they were scratching for in my bag. It was books!

We continued to speak isiXhosa to the kids after school. Sometimes they would forget and carry on in English and I knew that my sister would not fail to remind them that everybody understands isiXhosa in the house. My brothers did not compromise also, and sometimes I felt they were harsh on them. We also reached a compromise where I would use both languages to explain homework. By grade three, Tumi received her first award for English. Clearly mother tongue was not a barrier to learning English. Her language awareness was heightened and many times they discuss English, isiXhosa and Afrikaans vocabulary. They stop each other from mixing languages sometimes and I am a spectator to that.

Tumi is now in grade 6 and she can read in three languages. There is still more room for improvement, especially her spoken isiXhosa. I believe that she needs to interact more with isiXhosa speaking children for isiXhosa vocabulary and pronunciation to improve.  We write text messages in isiXhosa most of the time. I still leave messages in isiXhosa in the house.  My challenge is that there is more popular literature and novels for her age group in English, than there are in isiXhosa. I am also a parent, so sometimes I am not consistent but I think a teacher will give isiXhosa power, status and respect like languages learned in schools.

Today, when I hear Tumi asking her brothers why they are not speaking isiXhosa, I smile. When I see her reading isiXhosa books and writing in isiXhosa, I get the feeling that I have succeeded more than the teachers with all the time and materials they have in school to teach children to read and write. I still like lying next to my daughter and son and read aloud.

 Xolisa Guzula is an early biliteracy teacher and community trainer, researcher, children’s literature translator, storyteller and a developing author. She is one of the founders of a network of community literacy reading clubs called the Vulindlela Reading Clubs, and is a mentor to community literacy volunteers. She is currently working as Network Coordinator for PRAESA’S Nal’ibali National Reading for Enjoyment Initiative in partnership with AVUSA. She is also one the Little Hands Trust trustees.