There are many reasons why many people struggle to learn and maintain Vernac language learning, but often it comes down to unrealistic expectations, no practical strategy, and lack of psychological preparation.
This article is written to inspire people to have an efficient strategy and good attitude when it comes to learning Vernac languages, specifically isiXhosa (very similar is isiZulu, SiSwati and isiNdebele).
1. Assume it is an EASY language to learn:
Because it really is! Here’s a couple of great reasons why: Some languages, such as Japanese, have at least three alphabets and writing each character requires accuracy and attention. English, a language you can speak (if you are reading this) and one which many people from all different backgrounds and levels of education are learning all the time around the world, is NOT phonetic, which makes it difficult to learn to read and pronounce, in fact it can take years. In contrast, isiXhosa not only uses the Roman alphabet, but it IS phonetic and is thus quick and easy to learn to read and pronounce. Even the clicks, which make many people think that isiXhosa is impossible and they just CAN’T do, are really easy and quick to learn if someone knows how to teach them. There are only three clicks and we have taught over hundreds of people Xhosa over 6 years and everyone gets all three clicks in a minute. It then just takes a bit of practice and repetition to get them strong and effortless, much as we can all do a bench press of a moderate weight at least once, but it takes effort and practice to increase your reps. With a few minutes of practice each day, rapid progress is possible! And the clicks are a fantastic way of connecting to the vibrations of our old Bushmen ancestors. Travel back in time, reconnect to ancient human heritage. Learn the Clicks! See a great video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Trq_gIe1v04 And besides, attitude is everything when trying to learn anything!
2. Don’t START with the noun groups.
Many text books and Xhosa courses start with teaching the noun groups. This made some sense if the designer of the course was seeking to teach the entire structure of the language to a student and new that they had a long time to do so, for instance a couple of years at high school, or a year curriculum at university level. Even with those structures, many students seem to go through years of high school Xhosa tuition and come out not speaking Xhosa! I believe you have to start with a verb-based grammatical understanding, then combining with prefixes and using nouns only ad hoc, whilst the learner builds confidence and love for the spoken language of Xhosa. As you gain confidence and enjoyment, and sense the tangible rewards for your effort, you will be motivated to start tackling the more study intensive noun groups and all conjugations that follow from there. This worked for me!
3. Don’t rush in till you know how to escape!
We ask students to not engage with Xhosa speakers until they have learnt how to enter the conversation, introduce themselves, but then also how to respectfully exit the conversation. This entails knowing the good-byes, but more importantly, it is about knowing how to explain in the Xhosa that one is still learning to speak Xhosa, that one only speaks a little and one can’t say anymore. Xhosa people love it when you can say these things properly but they also get that your Xhosa is limited, which helps avoid difficult situations. And its disrespectful to just charge in with “Molo, sisi” and then not have anything else to say.
4. Then rush in whenever you can!
This knowledge in turn gives you as a learner increased confidence to enter into conversations in the first place, something you need to do a lot of to improve in any language. So once you know the basics, and can ‘escape’ respectfully, you need to go for it. One of the great things about learning Xhosa is that it is appreciated by so many Xhosa speakers. One of my ‘mamas’ says that when someone tries to speak Xhosa to her, she wants to hug them cos it makes her feel like all is right in the world. This is an attitude shared by many Xhosa people, as told by her, as experienced by myself personally, shared by many students, and confessed to by Xhosa people I have asked. However, not everyone is like this and if Xhosa people feel or suspect, and have been subjected to people speaking their language in a way that is obviously just to manipulate or exploit, they do not react warmly at all. What people respond to is respect, effort, authenticity, humility!
5. Initially, focus on quality, not quantity. Then quantity!
Many students want to learn lots of grammar and vocab before they start speaking with people, and although I can’t stress the importance of learning, it is important that learners do not try learn more at the cost of really knowing the basics well and then using those basics, developing confidence and love for the spoken language. Its like trying to learn about driving a car by reading more and more manuals, so that you will know how to drive when you first get into a car. Ja right! You need to get behind the wheel to learn how to drive. Same with a language. One must also make sure that one is not avoiding one’s fear of speaking with people and the inevitable sense of being out of one’s depth by trying to outlearn one’s own fears. The key is to balance mastering the levels you are at, whilst pushing into new areas. Once you are comfortable with entering and knowing how to politely exit conversations, then learn vocab vocab vocab!
6. Learn the basics of culture and show respect
Knowing the basics of culture indicates an extra layer of depth to your language efforts for indeed culture and language go hand in hand, such as the African handshake, giving and receiving with two hands, indirect eye contact being a sign of respect to an elder, greeting an elder first, seating oneself on arrival at someone’s home. UBuntu Bridge have some cool videos and basic culture tips built into our courses, some of which can be seen here:
Quite a White Ou’s Kwaito Song “Ndingumlungu”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOOCQiKlZ8w
How to do an African Handshake: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3p2uR8cMdk
A Basic Xhosa Greeting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rV0eO1Vqie8
A lot of our culture tips are included in the FREE online isiXhosa Video course that will walk you through our entire beginners course in a nutshell: http://www.learnxhosa.co.za/free-online-isixhosa-course/.
Ultimately learning about a person’s culture is about showing respect. Xhosa people are not into the formalities of respect if meeting people from another culture, but more about authentic expressions of courtesy and respect.
7. Choose a conversation partner wisely, if at all, and know your CLARIFICATION PHRASES
Some Xhosa people just don’t seem to get how to speak to a beginner learner. They either speak to quickly, misinterpret your questions or they try teach you ludicrously big and uncommon words and no amount of ‘coaching’ seems to help. Some folks, however, are naturals and slow right down and explain in a simple fashion, and just seem to ‘get’ what it is that you need. They are also ‘coachable’ in the sense that if you ask them to explain again, or repeat in Xhosa, but slowly, they do! Someone with patience and who gets joy from helping you is what you need. Most importantly, don’t be discouraged if someone you regularly try to practice with just seems to confuse you more. Find another practice partner. Again, I believe with good materials you can practice by yourself or with another learner and then go straight into ‘live’ conversations. UBuntu Bridge’s materials are designed to let you interact with the Cd, learning all appropriate vocab and even giving you sample conversations relating to grammar learned in each lesson, with a breakdown of each phrase in the conversation, allowing you to learn and hear and repeat both person’s parts. No matter whether you practice with someone, or go straight for live conversations, make sure you know the CLARIFICATION phrases, as taught in Lesson 7 of our beginners course. “Slow down”, “please repeat”, “How do you say … in xhosa?”, “What is ….. in English?” amongst many others prove to be of great value, but help you to use Xhosa to improve your Xhosa!
8. Keep motivated – Understand the Value of Learning Xhosa:
Learning Xhosa in the New SA is not just, at least I hope, an exercise in getting govt tenders or improving sales. It is also a form of social reconciliation, of promoting intercultural harmony and respect, of acknowledging past injustices, some of which involved a deliberate non-mother tongue education (think Soweto uprising, 1976) with devastating short and long term consequences and a general disregarding, disrespecting and de-valuing of African culture and languages, both by the European cultures and then the African cultures themselves. By learning about an African culture and speaking in an African language, you are re-valuing it, you are giving an entire culture and its people respect and acknowledgement. Mandela himself, in his first speech as president of SA, urged the people of South Africa to learn each other’s languages after learning Afrikaans and so much of Afrikaner history went so far to winning the respect, trust and admiration of the Afrikaner leaders of the Apartheid regime. This basic effort would contribute to the vision of South Africa he had laid foundations for.
9. Volunteer in the townships and go visit the rural villages
Xhosa people predominantly are still living in conditions of poverty whether in rural homelands or in informal urban settlements (townships). It is largely a consequence of Colonialism (land invasion and acquisition and migrant labour) and Apartheid that they live in the conditions they do and so those of us who have benefitted from these same systems have some social duty at least to find ways to contribute and give back from a place of privilege and wealth. One way of giving is volunteering in the townships. Human resources are of much value, whether you can bring a skill, or mentoring, or coaching, all contribute greatly to the education and experience of the people. Meanwhile the immersion and interaction in Xhosa will do wonders for your Xhosa skills. Even two hours a week could bring much value to a Xhosa child/adult and yourself. Another place to immerse oneself is the rural villages, where you can not only experience the breathtaking scenery and charm of rural Xhosa life, but also contribute to a form of sustainable income for local villagers who can make valuable income from hosting guests, at minimal expense and great value to the guests. Seek established, but not commercialised channels of connecting with locals to ensure authentic experiences.
For an authentic village experiences, see Village Xhosa Promo video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFBP4k5NOrU or http://www.learnxhosa.co.za/village-homestays-tours-township-cultural-immersions/.
Township Experiences: http://travelblog.portfoliocollection.com/Blog/A-Day-in-Khayelitsha-Cape-Town
Our collaboration with dine with Khayelitsha: http://www.learnxhosa.co.za/dine-with-khayelitsha/
10. Know your goal and keep perspective:
Enjoy it and keep realistic about your goals. Sometimes even the basics will improve and deepen relationships and respect with yourself and Xhosa people. Most Xhosa people can speak English and important business will either be done in English or a translator will be needed as learning Xhosa to a point of professional fluency will take a long time if learning as a busy working adult. Remember that some days you will have flowing conversations, where your brain just tunes in, and some days it will seem as though you are making no progress. Don’t give up, remember that the effort to learn is greatly appreciated, and at the end of the day, you don’t need language to show gratitude and respect to all peoples and creatures. A final quote from Madiba: “Speak to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. Speak to a man in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
Learning languages can open our hearts, and that is something we need more of on the planet.
Want to start learning isiXhosa for free online with fun videos?
Click here: http://www.learnxhosa.co.za/free-online-isixhosa-course/
uKlegi a.k.a Makhosi learnt a dialect of isiXhosa in the rural villages of the Mpondo and Xhosa people as an adult from 2003 (after graduating at UCT), before learning the more urban dialects as a volunteer in a Cape Town township. He designs isiXhosa learning materials, teaches Xhosa courses and trains teachers through the non-profit organisation UBuntu Bridge.
And our recent School Vernac Language Vision Proposal: