How to Learn a Language in South Africa

Heather O’Keefe is a student at Case Western Reserve University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Heather is currently studying abroad with ISA in Cape Town, South Africa.

Unlike many people who study abroad to master a language, I chose the University of Cape Town partially because classes were taught in English. While my professors lecture in English, between classes I am surrounded by a variety of languages. South Africa is affectionately called the Rainbow Nation in celebration of the country’s vast and brilliant diversity. This is reflected in the not one, or two, but eleven official languages!

According to The World Factbook these languages are: IsiZulu 22.7%, IsiXhosa 16%, Afrikaans 13.5%, English 9.6%, Sepedi 9.1%, Setswana 8%, Sesotho 7.6%, Xitsonga 4.5%, siSwati 2.5%, Tshivenda 2.4%, and isiNdebele 2.1%. The four most widely spoken are Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and English. These four languages have had a profound cultural impact on South Africa. I’m sure a linguist could describe the fascinating history of the nation through these languages.

Zulu is the most prominent mother tongue throughout all of KwaZulu-Natal, and parts of Free State, Mpumalanga, and Gauteng. It is primarily spoken by black South Africans; current President Jacob Zuma speaks Zulu as his first language. The most famous Zulu speaker is Shaka Zulu (1787-1828). Shaka was a ferocious warrior-chief responsible for the vast expansion of the Zulu Kingdom. While oftentimes brutal, Shaka was a military genius who united and conquered many groups throughout eastern South Africa.

Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, another famous Zulu speaker, came to University of Cape Town.

Nelson Mandela, the most famous South African, was a Xhosa speaker. The Xhosa language comprises of three types of clicks, which have proved very challenging to learn. Mandela’s real name is Rolihlahla, but British mission teachers could not pronounce his Xhosa name and started calling him Nelson at school. A traveler to South Africa would encounter Xhosa throughout the Eastern Cape, Mandela’s homeland, and around Cape Town.

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Mandela’s home, Mandela’s retirement home in the Transkei region of the Eastern Cape, an area where Xhosa is spoken.

In some contexts, Afrikaans is a very controversial language. In 1952 the Dutch East India Company arrived on the shores of Cape Town; over the years Afrikaans, a Dutch dialect, developed and was spoken by Afrikaaners (people of Dutch descent) and coloureds (broadly meaning people of mixed race, but more specifically are of European, African, and Asian descent). During apartheid, Afrikaans was the language of the ruling party and the government tried to force Afrikaans as the language of education. Today Afrikaans is associated with big rugby players and musician Jack Parrow.

Rugby, UCT beat Stellenbosch, an Afrikaans university, in a big rugby game.

Despite the many languages of South Africa, English is the lingua franca and often spoken in political, economic, and media contexts. A very small amount of people speak English as a first language (only 40% of whites) but when reading the newspaper, watching TV, or studying for a test, everything in Cape Town is in English. South African English isn’t exactly the same as American English as it has borrowed many terms from the other dialects of the nation and created some slang terms of its own (i.e. sandals are slops, traffic light is robot, braai is barbecue, yebo is yes, lekker is cool, keen is interested).

Basketball, Members of my basketball team are from all over South African and even Zimbabwe, but we communicate on the court in English.

If you are keen on having a lekker time while studying abroad, come to the Rainbow Nation! The United States is known as the melting pot, but in nowhere but South Africa is cultural diversity so apparent, prominent, and a facet of daily life. I love the variety of accents my different South African friends have and take no bother when people around me are speaking a language I cannot decipher. The languages of South Africa, and the inclusion of eleven in government, represent a democratic South Africa, where all South Africans are free. The languages have not only challenged me linguistically (I still can’t get down the Xhosa clicks!) but have challenged the way I think about the way people communicate and how people can be proud of their mother tongue in a united nation.

Want to read more about South Africa? Check out “Cape Town: My Top Ten Superlatives”