Defend Truth


Losing your childhood language means losing your own history


Lwando Xaso is an attorney, writer and speaker . She is the founder of Including Society. She is also the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’. Follow her at @includingsociety.

The first language spoken to me upon my arrival into this world was isiXhosa. The words that soothed my nigglings as a baby were in isiXhosa. The language shared between the two people who conceived me was isiXhosa. Without our language our memory is lost.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

My father is a former news editor at the SABC. More specifically, he was the editor of the isiXhosa news bulletin. He has over his career worked with celebrated news readers such as Noxolo Grootboom and Linda Gqomfa, whose command of the isiXhosa language was nothing short of legendary. My dad was part of creating that magic.

The isiXhosa news broadcast was one that I never watched and when I did watch it, I barely understood it. This wasn’t colloquial isiXhosa, it was the Mqhayi kind.

My father’s intimate, poetic and substantive knowledge and use of our mother tongue is his spiritual and also financial currency, providing for me to attend white schools to learn white ways. My parents speak to me in isiXhosa. However, my command of the language is subpar. My home language was competing with a world that taught me that to speak English better than isiXhosa would be rewarded. From school to television, English was the medium of engagement and social progress.

The complexity of living in a multicultural city like Joburg meant that for purposes of practicality my friends and I spoke to one another in English. Our unwritten school policies would not even allow us to speak to one another in our own vernacular. Speaking English almost exclusively was heavily incentivised. It even impressed those around us and elicited the now despised refrain “you speak so well”. And so we twanged on.

In the competition between English and isiXhosa, English won, alienating our mother tongue. Our social, cultural and linguistic displacement accounts for some of the mental anguish that I see in myself, my peers and younger generations, who are even more linguistically estranged.

We are immigrants among our own people, socially dead and unanchored in our communities. Untethered from our ancestors, whose spirits we are not able to conjure in a shared tongue. Our forced separation and also abandonment of who we are has unleashed ingqumbo yeminyanya in so many ways. Two weeks ago I participated in the 19th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, a memorable career highlight, but a moment from the lecture that has stuck with me is that of praise singer Jessica Mbangeni summoning Madiba’s spirit while dressed so regally in our imibhaco. Like my father, Jessica has a knowing of herself that can only be accessed through one’s native tongue. Although I had just appeared knowledgeable while interviewing former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda, Mbangeni’s performance underscored all the things I did not know and what I had abandoned.

The first language spoken to me upon my arrival into this world was isiXhosa. The words that soothed my nigglings as a baby were in isiXhosa. The language shared between the two people who conceived me was isiXhosa. My grandfather loved, rebuked, disciplined and prayed for all his grandchildren in isiXhosa.

My grandfather gave his children only isiXhosa names. My grandmother sang her favourite hymns to us in isiXhosa. Relating to one another in isiXhosa brought with it a sense of dignity, safety and depth that is unavailable to us in English. What does it mean to have your mother tongue severed? What are the things I am unable to say, write and create? And what parts of me are lost forever?

Julie Sedivy’s essay on Medium titled The Strange Persistence of First Languages documents her search for her native tongue after her father’s death. She writes that her father’s death underscored another loss – that of her native tongue. She shares how English had become, over the grumblings of her parents, their family language, which is deemed exemplary for immigrants. Quite strikingly, she writes that, when a childhood language decays, so does the ability to reach far back into your own private history. “Language is memory’s receptacle.”

My generation is raising children who speak English almost exclusively. We comfort ourselves by saying being Xhosa is not defined by language.

Only that’s not true. A significant part of being Xhosa is knowing the language and culture. A significant part of being Xhosa is having memory. Without our language our memory is lost. With each generation that memory fades away.

As I watched and listened to Mbangeni, each word stood out like , in the words of Jorge Luis Borges, a talisman. In that moment I knew that paying tribute to and remembering Madiba, our ancestor, would have been incomplete without doing so in our own uncolonised tongues. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • Carol Green says:

    Beautiful, profound and so true Lwando.
    At least it seems you still have your parents to be able to learn from and hopefully regain some of what you’ve lost.

  • Hendrik Jansen van Rensburg says:

    Losing or discarding?

    As another one of the majority of South Africans whose first language isn’t English, I am very aware that holding on to my mother tongue is a choice that I make. And I agree with the author: to relinquish one’s language is a far greater impoverishment than simply the loss of a means of communication. It is an abandonment of heritage, of culture, of identity even. It should be cherished and not sacrificed so cheaply at the altar of expediency, convenience, and societal pressure.

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