Monday, May 25, 2015

Engleish, our Engleish

I found a fascinating little grammar book at our local library called, 'Engleish, our Engleish: Common errors in South African English and how to resolve them' (The title has a little joke within it - 'eish' is used to express disbelief, surprise or exasperation.)

Apart from being a general English grammar reference book, there are a few very interesting chapters:

  • No 'Afringlish', please, we're British
  • English as influenced by speakers of our indigenous African tongues
  • 'Pickle fish' and 'corn beef'; our past participles are getting the chop
As I've mentioned on my blog a few times, South Africa has 11 national languages and probably South African Sign Language is the unofficial 12th language. Officially everything (road signs, government publications etc.) is supposed to be made available in all 11 languages. But from what I can see and experience there is still much power being abused through language use (or disuse). In the Western Cape everything is available in English, lots of things in Afrikaans and some things in Xhosa. In other areas languages like Zulu are more prominent. Generally though, English is the language that wields the most power.

The book is an insight into the need and desire that so many South Africans have to use English well. But of course the beauty of South African English lies in its depth and richness from influences from languages like Afrikaans and other African languages.

Given that we have lived here for nearly four years it's natural that we've picked up quite a few South African English vocabulary items and use them everyday. We regularly say, 'Ja', 'Izzit', 'Howzit' and 'must' instead of 'should'. But what I didn't realise was that we had also picked up a few other things like saying, 'stay' instead of 'live' (e.g. 'I stay in Muizenberg.') and, 'to come with' rather than 'to come along' (e.g. 'Please come with'). I get frustrated when I make silly copula mistakes and say things like, 'You is...' In Afrikaans there are different rules regarding subject/verb agreement and strangely this has carried over when talking to Shiri at times. I suppose it's not because I have learnt much Afrikaans (I haven't!) but because she is still working out singular/plural agreement and I hear it being misused nearly every day by people whose first language is Afrikaans.

(This excerpt from a radio show has examples of a few funny Afrikaans influences on English. The example, 'I is wearing a jean pant' is not beyond the realm of possibility when speaking to an Afrikaner!)

At George Whitefield College all teaching is done in English and this can be quite frustrating for students and also for the faculty as they try to translate students' essays and exams come marking time. It can be hard to determine the difference between a student not understanding the material or just not being able to express themselves clearly in English. But one thing I never tire of is listening to all the different accents and picking up why and how English is pronounced depending on the students' linguistic backgrounds. Often syllable stress is just a little off which can make a word completely nonsensical but other times it just sounds so African! Syllable stress is different in other languages and are usually more predictable e.g. in most Bantu languages the penultimate syllable is pronounced. Some examples that you might hear around our neighbourhood:

'circumstances' rather than 'circumstances' or 'deficit' rather than 'deficit'

I loved reading this list from page 28. I could hear the differences in my head and I literally smiled.

'Elongating conventionally short vowel sounds involving making -e, -i, -ea, -ie, -ee, and shortening conventionally long vowel sounds in English, which affects meaning:

Elongation of short vowel                               
Shortening of long vowel
fan fern markets mukits
fed fared assert asset
descent decend cheap chip
bit beat, beet scream scrim
bidding beading feedback fiedbeck
dip deep sheet shit
hit heat heel hill
sit seat weakened weekend
hut heart bird bed
burger beggar
burned banned
buyers bias
court caught, cot

Reflecting on my language use, what I hear around me and what my children are producing is a confusing activity. Will my children think my English is fossilized (that is, my English is will represent Australian English in 2011 and won't develop any further) and will my attempts at South African English sound out of place to them (like my Filipino mum saying 'G'day, mate')? What will happen to South African English as more and more people who have English as their second or third language come into positions of power and influence in society and politics? Will I always be able to hear the differences between South African English and Australian English or are they starting to meld together? Today I was asked if maybe I was from another country since I had a 'slight accent'. 'Slight'??!!! 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


(Photo by Ntokozo Mbambo.)

Something I read on a local Facebook group:

Hello moms, last night around 1900h l had my worst nightmare in my life. As I was fetching water from the tap outside my room, some guy came to me and threatened to kill me if I was to fail to tell him what the elbow is in xhosa pointing at it and pretending to cut his neck to show me he was going to kill me. Puzzled I responded in Ndebele as its called the same. Funny the landlord says to me I cant stop them.

There has been a huge wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa on 'foreigners' - people from neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe or Mozambique who have moved to South Africa in search of employment opportunities. There has been a lot of discussions in the media about why these attacks are happening right now but the idea that keeps popping up is resentment over employment. There is a very big unemployment problem in South Africa (perhaps something like one in four people are unemployed) and yet large swathes of people who are able to find employment are foreigners. 

These attacks have been violent. Horrifically so. I've read about a man being burnt alive after being beaten and run over by a car. Mobs of angry people roam the streets looking for stereotypical foreigners to harass i.e. a domestic worker or gardeners. Surprisingly to me domestic workers or gardeners are more often than not from Zimbabwe or Malawi or other African countries rather than being South African born. 

I began the post with the quote from a Zimbabwean living in Cape Town. The woman was tested to see if she was a South African or not. How? By testing her linguistic skills. The gangster/criminal/xenophobic racist asked her how to say 'elbow' in Xhosa. I'm not sure if the man spoke to her in English or Xhosa as it's not clear to me from her story. He threatened to kill her if she was unable to tell him the correct answer. She responded in another language, Ndebele, but she knew that 'elbow' is the same word in Xhosa and Ndebele (elbow = indololwane). 

The man was trying to find out the woman's identity through her linguistic abilities. This backfired on him since she was skilled enough in Xhosa (a language mostly spoken in the Western and Eastern Cape) and in her own Zimbabwean language, Ndebele, so she was able to fool him into thinking she wasn't a foreigner. 

(The situation reminds me of the Shibboleth/Sibboleth story in the book of Judges chapter 12.) 

Who is in and who is out? Who is acceptable and who is not? Who belongs and is welcome in South Africa and who is not? 

Using language as a measuring stick is a fascinating thing. There are 11 national languages in South Africa and I believe most people are multilingual and actually, the majority of the population would be at least trilingual. So testing someone's identity through what language they can speak is quite a tricky thing to do. Obviously the thug thought he could intimidate the woman but what a strange way since the language of many foreigners (Ndebele spoken in Zimbabwe) has many loan words with Xhosa (the language of many locals in this area). He could have at least chosen a word that is not the same in both languages! 


Once when I was on the banks of our local waterway ('vlei' in Afrikaans which translates to 'swamp' but it's a freshwater estuary) a man came up to Shiri and me and spoke to me in Xhosa. He said, 'Kunjani, sisi? ('How are you, sister?'). I was a bit concerned. I was alone except for my baby. The vlei is quite full of criminal activities at times. And culturally there was absolutely no need for him to greet me like that. If anything he should have spoken to me in Afrikaans or English. I replied, 'Ndiphilile.' (I'm well.) And then he left. It was a very odd encounter. I expected him to ask me for something - directions, food, money, the time, anything. But he didn't. Later I wondered if he was testing me for my own identity - could I respond with the right words? Did I belong here in South Africa? I may have been overthinking the situation but it was very odd anyway. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Funny in Any Language

I recently watched two YouTube videos that made me laugh. Both made me laugh. One made me laugh with nostalgia and made me miss Australia. And the other made me laugh because I am finally beginning to sympathise with something of the South African mindset.

The first video is from an Australian webseries called, 'The Katering Show'. I found it utterly hilarious and at the same time it made me quite homesick. The direct, harsh and cutting humour is something that just doesn't happen here in South Africa. The Australian teasing, merciless teasing, just doesn't translate very well in other cultures. We make fun because we love the other person. I miss the camaraderie that engenders this kind of humour.

The second video is from a well-known and loved South African comedian. When we first arrived, almost four years ago, I tried to watch some South African comedians but didn't understand a single thing - not their language or what or earth they found was funny. But now I'm starting to see, understand and appreciate South Africa's particular brand of humour. I think people laugh together at something when they have experienced it themselves and comedians capitalise on those shared experiences. Appreciating humour in other cultures seems to happen only when you have lived long enough in another culture to see things through someone else's eyes. It's not about an Australian laughing at South Africans but South Africans laughing at themselves.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Learning to learn

First language acquisition. I read an awful lot about this back at uni and have always been fascinated at how children absorb their first language. I studied how to be a second language teacher (namely English) but the skills needed for that are very different for your first language.

I had always thought I wold conduct little language experiments on my children but I see that everyday is a lesson for me about my own language use in front of my child. I can clearly observe how my daughter is able to infer meaning from repeated sounds, gestures and routines. She is building the passive scaffolding needed for active language generation a little further on the track. Sure, she can mimic all kinds of animal noises but what does that mean for her except fun and games? But when she says, 'nana' and I give her some banana then some meaningful exchange is happening.

There are two books that we read to ad nauseum. Before we reach the the last pages she already puts her finger up her nose and says, 'Shhhhh' mimicking the sleeping animals at the end of the books.

Post completed months later....

Shiri is now 2 years old and her vocabulary and articulation are beyond what I ever expected for this age. We also receive many surprised comments from people who agree that her speech development is quite advanced for her age. We don't feel like we do anything particularly special with her to encourage her ability to speak and speak profusely. As I noted above, she's an amazing mimic. She will copy everything you say quite competently and is able to generate a number of grammatical rules like 'ed' for past tense, 's' for plurals and 'ing' for participles.

Like any language learning enterprise the key is authentic exposure and masses of it. By authentic I don't mean static input like TV or even the somewhat interactive iPad apps or LeapFrog toys. Nothing beats human to human interaction. The back and forth that we engage her in models appropriate language, corrects non-standard speech and also exposes her to new vocabulary and sentences structures.

It strikes me that Shiri loves to repeat little stock phrases: 'Bless you, frog' (after a sneeze), 'I love you so much', 'No, don't do that, Mummy', 'Catch me, Daddy'. Phrases like these fill up her store of conversational starters and continuers. She can initiate conversation as well as encourage us to participate in further conversation with little phrases like these.

When learning a first language or really, acquiring a first language, it astounds me that not only are you breathing in that language, you are creating the scaffold of language learning. When you learn a second language you build on what you already know of language and communication and simply substitute in new vocabulary and new grammar.

My mind now wonders over to my (brand new!) second child - a son, Isaac. His language acquisition will be heavily coloured by Shiri's influence. They will talk to each other and eventually his cute 'interlanguage' will be peppered with linguistic items that neither Nathan nor I understand. His authentic exposure to English will include Shiri's language.

All in all, I marvel at how God has created language. He was the first to communicate. He communicated within the Godhead - between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And then he communicated with his creation. The Word is exactly that - a word. The word. The first word.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Click, click, click

We bought our daughter, Shiri, a few alphabet books. I was struck when browsing alphabet books that the examples chosen by the author would not be the same as what I would choose. The books we we had bought were Africa focused which are of course different from the Australian focused alphabet books I grew up with e.g 'K is for kangaroo' etc. 

What I really found strange was the example for the letter 'X'. The example given is 'Xhosa woman'. I really struggled to understand how this was an appropriate example for this particular letter. As far as I can make out, this book is focused on giving uniquely South African examples for the letters of the alphabet but the alphabet used is the English alphabet. When I read the word 'Xhosa' I read it with the Xhosa pronunciation i.e with a lateral click at the beginning of the word. When the word is used as a loan-word or a borrowed word into English, the word is pronounced more like /'ko:sĘŚ/. 

So I was confused. This word, in English, seemed like a better example for the letter 'K' than 'X'. But why was this word even in an English alphabet book? 'Xhosa' isn't an English word. It's a Xhosa word. The letter 'X' doesn't represent the same sound in English and Xhosa. 

I can only assume that this book isn't really trying to be a piece of genuine English educational material but a small insight into the cultural and linguistic diversity in South Africa. In South Africa there are 11 national languages. I live my life primarily in English but have some interactions in Afrikaans but they are limited to just greetings. It's the same for me with Xhosa. But for the majority of South Africans each day is made up of multiple multilingual interactions and actually the far majority is at least bilingual. I have found that most English speakers will pronounce the word 'Xhosa' with a /k/ rather than attempt the click. I can understand the reticence to attempt a foreign consonant but at the same time I do wonder how much this reticence reveals an underlying issue of language status and power. 

It's a funny thing that even though the majority of South African speak Zulu, English is the language of education and government. Most people, like I said above, are at least bilingual but being bilingual in Swazi and Tswana isn't going to get you as far as if you were bilingual in English and Afrikaans. 

I think my discomfort with this example in a children's alphabet book is that it's a deliberate choice to subvert the Xhosa pronunciation and replace it with an English pronunciation of a Xhosa word. I don't find it to be a cute cultural observation but an acute observation of language prestige. It seems like English is presented as superior to Xhosa. 

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hamba Kahle, Tata Madiba.

The death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was quite a shock. Testament to the way my world works now I found out via an Australian friend on Facebook. 

Madiba’s death is crushing to South Africa. I've heard it said that for the Born-Frees (those born in 1994 and afterwards), they know nothing different, but for those who lived throughout Apartheid, they understand that South Africa is now floating free without an anchor. I've read many times people saying that the father of South Africa, the great leader and ‘voice of reason’ has gone. 

Madiba endeavoured to speak to the people as one of the people. He said once, 'If you talk to man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.'

He also said, 'Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grapes their history, appreciate their poetry, or savour their songs.'

In many ways this just seems like common sense. Of course in order to speak sensibly to someone who need a language that they too understand. But the idea that you can easily and completely communicate in a lingua franca is false. What Mandiba’s first quote reveals is that your language, your first heart language, shapes the way you see the world. To speak in another language is to see the world differently. When you use another language to converse with someone you effectively leave your own headspace and are forced to move into something different and potentially uncomfortable. 

This is evident in the lives of Australians and other monolingual cultures. Language learning is novel and usually seen as unnecessary (since ‘everyone speaks English,’ right?!) But this issue is vastly different and to my mind, fascinating here in South Africa. 

Everyone, really, everyone is somewhat bilingual. And the far majority of the country can probably speak five or more languages. This isn’t novel or unnecessary. It’s very normal and vital to just being able to live here. (That being said, Nathan and I haven’t really learned any other languages although I am learning Sign.)

South Africa has 11 official languages. Being able to speak/understand more than one language is expected but what seems to happen is that language flows around and through people. Conversations are flooded with loan words, loan phrases and entire loan ideas but because people are familiar with so many languages communication is maintained. Perhaps even enriched by all the mixing and jumbling. 

However, what Madiba was pointing out was that however understandable your words are, unless they are in the same worldview and headspace as your recipient’s heart language, you will not able to truly communicate all that you could have. 

This is part of the fundamental drive for Bible translation. Sure the Deaf of South Africa could read an English or Afrikaans Bible (if they actually had an opportunity to go to school and learn those languages) but there will be concepts and gospel truths they will not ever be able to understand completely unless they first see the Bible in South African Sign. Their heads may well be full of knowledge but will their hearts be touched? 

After all, God can sign in South African Sign Language. He can sign in all the 60 odd sign languages throughout the world. Just as Jesus’ hands held those nails on the cross, Jesus’ hands communicate love, grace, forgiveness and salvation in South African Sign language. 

As an extra comment, the SASL interpreter at Madiba's memorial service did not sign anything resembling SASL. It was a terrible disappointment and confirms that there are many live issues involving language status and language politics in South Africa.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Seeing Voices*

I've been thoroughly enjoying working the Deaf translators as well as being encouraged in my own faith in God. I travel to St James Church in Kenilworth twice a week and work with the team for four hours at a time. Let me tell you what normally happens on a regular working day.

When I arrive I sign, 'Hi' and 'How are you?' to each of the translators (Agnes, Richard and Thabo). They greet me back with, 'Fine' or 'Good'. Then they usually offer me tea. I can sign, 'coffee', 'rooibos tea' and 'hot chocolate'. All very important signs!

We open with prayer. I haven't managed to pray in sign just yet. When the Deaf pray the person praying closes their eyes as they pray. But the rest of the group keep their eyes open to watch the person praying. When I first prayed with the Deaf I, out of habit, bowed my head and closed my eyes. But of course this doesn't work when someone is signing and is actually a very disrespectful action as you are effectively closing down communication. The Deaf often pray in 'one hand' (my terminology!) where everyone prays at the same time. (As an aside, there is a lot to be said about both ways of praying with regards to how public prayer is corporate and mutually encouraging rather than just an individual phone call to God. Being able to watch the person praying forces you to 'listen with your eyes' (there's a single sign for this) just like when one person prays on behalf of a group. While I always enjoy praying in 'one voice/hand' I do wonder what happens to mutual encouragement and the sincere ability to say, 'Amen' at the end.)

The translation process begins and ends with prayer asking God to help us all to understand and translate the Bible well. If we are starting a new passage, we begin by each translator reading the passage in the Easy to Read Version (English). One translator will also read it in the NIV (English) and perhaps in the Xhosa version as well.

The conversation proceeds much like the average home Bible study. The team will ask me about words or concepts they don't understand and we'll all flip around the Bible trying to remember bits and pieces from other parts that help us to interpret the story we are working on. The next stage involves storyboarding the passage.

We have one incredibly talented artist (Thabo) who works diligently to illustrate the story in a very clear, natural and Deaf way. He even draws out the dialogue with little hands! Along the way I'll check what is being drawn and every now and then I'll pipe up with something that the team will need to discuss e.g. theophanies (when God reveals himself to people) are difficult, particularly in Genesis where God and the Angel of the Lord are interchangeable. Drawing 'the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove' from John involved a loooong discussion.

Then the team moves to filming. One person is filmed signing the introduction (the story's title and a few key unknown words and their explanations), one person signs the story and then two people sign a very important little section with some questions and answers. This way each passage is thoroughly dissected and accompanied with helpful titbits much like a study Bible. Thus far the team have translated nine stories from the Old and New Testament. It's an amazing journey to see them grow in their faith and trust in God as they press on. Thrilling work!

*The blog post title is from Oliver Sack's book, 'Seeing Voices'. Amazing and deserving a blog post review of its own in due time.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Can you see what I'm saying?

I sign 'yes' like I say 'yebo' (Zulu) and 'ewe' (Xhosa) and 'ja' (Afrikaans). Multilingual confusion but it all make sense. In my head at least.

I'm loving working with the Deaf. Just loving it. It's incredibly humbling to be on the bottom of the linguistic food chain again but it's so thrilling when I can sign something and be understood! My colleagues are overwhelmingly accommodating and kind and thankfully can lipread English so it's not as difficult if we had no languages in common. But I'm determined to learn as quickly as I can and not rely on what is called, Total Communication, where you sign in Sign Language but speak (to yourself) in English. It's a bit silly that people do this really, since you're actually communicating in two different languages at once which is impossible if you think about it. One language has to take the dominant role and unfortunately for your Deaf conversation partner, it will be English. But people do this for other Hearing people also involved in the conversation and also for the Deaf to lipread. For myself I do it because I still think in English rather than think in Sign Language. But I'm getting there.

It's also a bit of a total mind shift to work only with my hands to communicate. My language learning skill - mimicking - is not getting used as much. Now it's more deliberate copying than mimicking. I'm not sure if that's a real distinction but that's how it feels to me. It's not such an intuitive aural mirroring. I regularly get confused with my left and right as well as placement of my hands. I can manipulate my voice more easily.

I have about 50 pieces of vocabulary that I can sign and 50 more that I can understand. I can follow a (very!) simple conversation if I know the topic first. And after watching the translators practice Mark 7:31-37 and Mark 2:1-17 over and over and over and over and over and over again, I'm pretty familiar with those stories!

We have long and intense conversations about all sorts of linguistic and theological issues. What is faith? Why doesn't God heal me of my deafness? What kind of head coverings did Pharisees wear? What were the house roofs made of in Capernaum? Were the tax booths like the little huts that security officers use at the entrances to housing estates? How far is Tyre from Sidon from the Decapolis from the Lake of Galilee? And their respective elevations?

I'm so grateful that Shiri loves her babysitter so that I can work with the Deaf on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. It's a hard balance to maintain being a full-time mum and a part-time translation consultant. I did try to bring Shiri along to work since the Deaf wouldn't be able to hear her cry anyway (they didn't mind!) but it didn't work out. She's happier at home where she can run amok and have her babysitter sing to her German as they walk to the beach. Shiri is growing strong and healthy and is a wonder to behold. What a blessed privilege to be a mum. I love it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Next step

My Heart's Desire from Wycliffe Global Alliance on Vimeo.

In a few short days I'll be beginning my work with the South African Sign Language Bible translation project. This is both thrilling and terrifying. Right at this moment I'm thinking, 'Who will look after my baby?', 'What on earth do I have to offer to the Deaf community?', 'I never, ever in my wildest dreams thought I'd be learning a Sign language - can I even do that?', 'Arghgh! I need to revise all my Greek and Hebrew paradigms!', 'Must. Read. More'. You know. Stuff like that.

It's all a wild ride of unknowingness, murkiness and glimpses of light along the way - both for me and for the translators as they better understand the Bible, better understand Jesus' love for them and how to best explain that truth to their community.

I'll be working alongside an expert translation consultant from DOOR (Deaf Opportunity OutReach) to continue my consultancy training but this time instead of the orality of the Fwe in Zambia I'll be delving deep into the 'orality' of the Deaf community of South Africa. Yep, another oral language in the sense that it's not 'written down'. Words really fail us here since Sign Language is, of course, not 'oral' but it's not written down with letters and words so the only alternative in the current nomenclature is 'oral'. It's weird to say that though...

We'll be starting off by translating 110 Bible stories that have been carefully selected to tell the whole story of the Bible. The end goal, is of course, the whole thing but by working bit by bit we can share parts of the Bible more readily with the Deaf community. The Bible portions produced will be on a DVD with an actor signing the story and behind them will be storyboards depicting more about the story. You can have a look at some Bible stories already completed here: Deaf Bibles.

I'm working with four native speakers of Sign Language: Richard, Agnes, Thabo and Christopher. It'll be an incredible journey to get to know them better, to learn Sign Language and also to see Jesus transform the lives of the Deaf here in South Africa.

The Fwe are still near and dear to my heart. They always will be. I hear snippets about their progress now and then and I'm so glad to know that they have a consultant who loves them and is working with them to continue the translation of the Gospel of Luke. I miss that work dreadfully. Maybe one day God will make it possible for me to go back to Zambia but for now Shiri needs me front and centre (literally - she's still being breastfed!).

I haven't posted much about motherhood. I'll tell you what, though, it's awesome. It's frustrating. It's rewarding. It's confusing. And it's the best thing I've ever done in my life.

Just before I gave birth I heard a guest at George Whitefield College that becoming a mother was the best thing she had ever done and nonsense from the feminist camp about it destroying yourself was 'bloody stupid'. I didn't understand. But now I do. Being a mum is awesome.

/eating crow. lots of it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Taking Stock

Sometimes you just have to stop. Think. And then wonder out loud, 'What the heck am I doing'? We recently had our annual pastoral visit from our mission agency in Australia. We had to fill out a 10+ page questionnaire beforehand which was actually a good chance to just take stock. What are we doing? Where are we doing it? Is it working? Should we be doing something different? Is this what we expected? Are we ok? No, really, are we ok? Or are we just telling people we're ok and in actuality we're floundering?

And most importantly, are we being faithful to God?

Actually. I take that all back.

Sometimes you just have to stop. Think.

God is faithful. No matter what. No matter what I'm doing. No matter if what I'm doing is working. No matter if what I'm doing is what I expected. Or even if it's not. No matter if I feel like I'm ok or if I feel like I'm floundering.

God is faithful.