Monday, September 20, 2010

Radio Language

(Tuesday, September 14)

"You can only really follow anything in places where you speak the language. That limits you of course. . . . When you can't overhear it's no good. All you get are handouts and sight-seeing."

As I was reading Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway this line really made me think about my own limitations here in South Africa. Although most people in East London and much of the country, apart fro mthe very rural areas, can speak and understand English, only a small percentage of them speak it as their primary language. Around the city, the majority of people are Xhosa, so walking around town, in shops and on the street, this is the language that is spoken. So although I can speak to most people, I cannot overhear their comments or conversations, and I am an outsider to them, so I, according to Hemingway, just get "handouts and sight-seeing." No one talks to an outsider the same way they talk to each other. Of course all my conversations are valuable, and as I build relationships with people I become less of an outsider, but there is still that true insider perspective missing.

One way I have found to at least partially fill this void is by listening to the radio. I pick up about eight radio stations on my Zune, including a couple in Xhosa or possibly Zulu and one or two in Afrikaans, which are fun to listen to but of course don't make much sense to me (Afrikaans is interesting; for some reason it reminds me of a reading of Beowulf in its original Gaelic that I once heard, which is a very strange connection) and about four in English, which broadcast to a more diverse audience. I love this because on the radio it is South Africans talking to South Africans, which I cannot hear otherwise, and this has given me all kinds of great new insights. It's also interesting to see what kind of music is popular today in South Africa, though it's disappointingly dominantly American: Rihanna, Beyonce, Chris Brown, Jay Z, Katy Perry, John Meyer, and so on. There is local music as well of course, notably a Braai song that could only be South African and some stations dedicated entirely to music by South African artists, but for the most part the popular music is American.

I was listening to Metro FM (107.7) and heard a really fascinating discussion about culture and language. In South Africa English is "the language of prestige, the language of education, the language of business," in the words of the radio host. If a South African is to succeed outside of his or her immediate community, they will almost certainly need to know English, and if they want to go to University they must be fluent. I believe this is really necessary because of the number of languages across South Africa - there has to be something to unify them, some language they all share. But this discussion was about the importance of the mother tongue, which is being lost to some degree as the younger generations in the cities depend more and more on English. During Apartheid, English was largely denied to black people, and it was not taught in their schools. Today schools in the city are taught in English, so the children are being educated largely in a language that is not their own.
"The most important language for a person is their mother tongue," she said, "but children are not sent to Zulu or Xhosa schools, because the schools taught in these languages are in the townships, and parents believe that township schools are of poorer quality. But why not work to improve these schools, instead of avoiding them and ignoring the problem?"
She made it all an issue of pride in who one is, pride and respect for one's culture, and placing value in language as a vital aspect of that culture. She thinks it is unreasonable and disrespectful of people to expect all South Africans to be able to speak English, even when it is not their mother tongue, and that it is a disgrace that people who cannot express themselves in English are looked down upon as uneducated or illiterate. And she fears that as children depend more on English they will begin to lose the complete understanding of their mother tongue, which means that they will lose the stories and traditions of their culture which cannot be translated with the complete meaning intact. She said that English should not be the only option for University study, that classes should be taught in both English and native African languages, and that public addresses should not cater to the English media, but should be in the first language of the speaker. The ironic part to me was that this entire discussion was broadcast in English, though it was clearly not the first language of the majority of the people involved in it. This radio station is English by necessity, so that it can reach people across the country, from different cultural backgrounds, who have no linguistic connections to each other other than English. It's an interesting dilemma. How do you connect such a diverse country while maintaining the cultural differences and barriers that produce that diversity?

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