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.