I am blessed. I love that I have friends across the ‘colour spectrum’ and ‘cultural divide’ that will remind me, call me and encourage me in confronting social constructs such as race and colour and culture. I also know that many of my friends keep quiet when things are said and done, which may be offensive, choosing to find the good behind the action, rather than just see the action with suspicion. One of these potentially offensive comments is: “Gosh, you speak well” or “who is that well-spoken person of colour”? Within the white community of South Africa there is a diversity of accents and yet we don’t GENERALLY acknowledge when we think someone has the ideal accent – if you are too well spoken, you may be labelled as being prim or upper class and if you have a different accent (such as my friends from PE or the east/ south of Jo’burg) you are categorised accordingly.
As a White (mostly with a lot of Afrikaans) English speaking South African Woman (these labels are all important in this context), who has an Afrikaans heritage and been exposed to reconciliation and engaged cross-culturally from childhood, I have learnt that my Xhosa and Portuguese got muddled when I stopped speaking it enough – and yet it was always received with grace and a sense of “you have made the effort” despite the fact that I am mortified that think I often sounded like a 2 year old – there is a quirky story of the Mozambican, Portuguese speaking friends I lived with in Mozambique whose little girl had a lisp. I practiced most of my Portuguese on arriving in Mozambique with her as she spoke no English – the problem with this is that I learnt to pronounce certain words like a 2 year old with a lisp! This lisp was something that was only clarified when listening to 1st language or other more fluent speakers pronounce the same words – and yet in this no one ever laughed, chuckled or made me feel patronised – in fact they affirmed that I “spoke well”. Um, no I didn’t – I macheted their language *cringe recollections of asking the cook to cook ladies instead of carrots* and offering people warm “s&%t” instead of warm cocoa- ya – I did that – publicly over dinner.
The difference is that my first language –English was the one most people aspired to show that they could converse fluently in – and when we got stuck with my broken 3rd language options, we defaulted to English – even if it meant my having to help find the words in English with my friends. This seeking to find the words, whether in English or Portuguese made us equals in some ways, and yet it really wasn’t – I was constantly apologising for not being able to speak fluently in their first language-and for them the apology was mirrored towards me. That was 8 years ago.
This theme of apology continues on – I consult in a predominantly Xhosa speaking community with a group of amazing health care workers. We greet in Xhosa, but my professional language is English, my heart language is English – theirs isn’t but we meet in English– and yet, they apologise to me when they need to switch into Xhosa to express themselves more fully (and someone graciously translates). I have found myself apologising more than once for not being able to respond in Xhosa and asking that they do not apologise to me – I lack a language skill – not them. See the difference is when I communicate in Xhosa, however minimally, it’s seen as a way of my acknowledging them. At no point though have they told me I speak well – and I appreciate this because I don’t.
However, when my friends are speaking a language which wasn’t offered to them as a first language in education or isn’t their home dialect are affirmed for speaking so well, or so fluently with an amazing accent -and let it be said that many of my friends don’t have different accents to me and many of them do- is my communicating that they are well spoken, a perception or indication for them that we are equals now, or that they have become ‘white’ or heard as a patronising comment, or is it an indication –whether perception or otherwise – that the “white community thinks we are raising up to their standard”?
Apartheid denied peoples’ home languages (unless English or Afrikaans) as much as it denied their right to be vote. Language isn’t a neutral issue in many ways. My acknowledging you “speak well” without acknowledging that this may be an unintentionally loaded comment from a white towards a coloured/ black person pushes into spaces that I need to respect, honour and realise more.
I yearn to speak either of my 3rd languages well – fluently enough that I can converse around heart issues – to be able to fight in a 3rd language with meaning! Until then, and until I truly do speak well, I am going to be grateful for my friends, with or without accents, who are gracious to my “bloopses” in this all.