Battle for the mother tongue: Not secure in Setswana

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.

Four-year-old Olaotse Mogakane does not seem to think that his mother tongue is for him.

While his mother, Bontle, is happy that his English is so good he corrects his parents whenever they mispronounce words, she worries he may struggle in the future.

“He will be a big man and, whenever we’re back at my parents’ house, everyone in the family will expect him to speak Setswana and he might also feel bad that he can’t and feel like an outsider. It is my greatest wish that he’s able to speak the language, or at least make some effort to,” she said.

“Most of us who attended public schools in post-apartheid South Africa faced some sort of struggle when it came to English at university level. It became clear that not too much effort was put into English through our school years, but back then everyone around me, including teachers, spoke Setswana unless we were in an English or Afrikaans class.”

Bontle derives some comfort from the fact that Olaotse won’t struggle like she did at university.

“I am, however, worried that he may never be able to speak Setswana and that he won’t be able to pass the language on to his children, which is something we need in order to preserve our heritage.”

Olaotse is a bouncy young boy with an inquiring mind who constantly asks questions about everything and everyone.

He greets well and calls every man “malome” (uncle) – a sign of respect and a delight for his mother.

But this is about as far as he can go.

He takes instructions in Setswana, but not too well, only able to nod in agreement or shake his head while waiting for a translation.

It takes a while for him to work out what his mother is saying.

“I am not sure what to do with him because I’m worried that it may have a bad effect on him if I try to force Setswana down his throat. He is too comfortable with English and lacks confidence among people who speak a different language,” Bontle says.

“He is too shy to speak Setswana because it will come out all bad.”

Olaotse was born in Musina where he was exposed to Venda people speaking Tshivenda.

“We’ve now moved to Polokwane where he now has isiZulu-, Tshivenda- and Xitsonga-speaking friends and the only language that unites them is English.”


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