Battle for the mother tongue: Getting to grips with isiXhosa

It’s a complaint that reverberates around our multilingual country. Many of our children who are taught in English battle to speak their mother tongue. City Press asked four families how they keep their languages and heritage alive.

Mkhuseli Jack is very proud of his Xhosa heritage and views his mother tongue as an integral part of his tradition and legacy.

But his wife Karen, the mother of Thembaloxolo (19) and Cayla-Rose (17), speaks a different tongue entirely.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, his two children cannot speak isiXhosa as well as he would like – despite his best efforts to encourage them to embrace his language.

“My son speaks a little, but my daughter’s isiXhosa is not good at all. I guess in terms of language children are influenced by their mother, hence it’s called mother tongue.

That’s the case at my house,” Jack says of his English wife.

The wealthy businessman and prominent anti-apartheid activist from Port Elizabeth speaks to his children in isiXhosa but they respond in English.

He is quick to defend his children, though, saying his beloved language is dying a slow death, which they are not alone in being part of.

“My children have Xhosa-speaking friends but even when these kids are alone, they speak in English. Young people have lost interest in the language. As much as I try to revive it in my own house, it seems I am fighting a losing battle,” he says.

Jack feels strongly that his language defines who he is, but he cannot force his children to speak it.

“Language is the most valuable thing in our heritage and if you lose it, it means you have lost who you are.”

Although her isiXhosa is not perfect either, Karen Jack, who has been married to Mkhuseli for 20 years, encourages her children to speak the language.

Themba, as Jack’s son is known, has now taken an interest and is majoring in isiXhosa for his BA degree at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

He also didn’t allow his limited vocabulary to stand in the way of undergoing the traditional ritual initiation.

Asked in isiXhosa if he is a man, he replies, “Ewe ndiyindoda, ndaya entabeni” (Of course I am, I went to the mountain).

But he quickly switches to English. “We speak 95% English at home. My dad tries to encourage us but I guess we have not been trying hard. But I am very proud of isiXhosa, it is part of my heritage.”

I ask Themba questions in isiXhosa and he responds with “Andiva“ (I can’t understand you). He says goodbye in isiXhosa, though: “Ndiyavuya ukukwazi“ (It was nice knowing you).


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