ENGLISH: Whose twang is it anyway?

Black South African youth – the select few who went to former model c and private schools – stand between a rock and a very hard place. Many of us, either in school or as soon as we enter the working world, discover that we are never going to be viewed through the same lens as our white peers.

We get annoyed when people say things like “oh you speak so well”, statements that tell us that our good command of English is seen as a measure of how intelligent we are or how exceptional we are. This upsets us because we do not understand why the expectation is that we wouldn’t speak well, we wonder if we need to have a twang close to that of white people in order to be taken seriously. This hurts us.

Then we watch television and the advertisements that feature black people piss us off even more. Black people are either dancing for airtime or saying something in a funny way and guess what? It’s not the content of what they say that is funny – it’s their over exaggerated accents. We ask ourselves why it’s funny for a black woman to jump up and down saying “You can talk for free on weekends”. We question what happens in these advertising firms’ brainstorm sessions and why our people simply saying something is hilarious. We get mad and we roll our eyes.

Here’s the thing though. We are so quick to point out the mistakes of white people and how they view us. We get annoyed when white people put on a “black accent” for comic relief. We get mad as hell when white people make us look stupid for our grammatical errors. As the bible says about being judgmental, we point out the speck in the white man’s eye but we have a huge log in our own.

Although we do not want white people to use English as some sort of barometer by which we measure black intelligence, we laugh at our fellow black people when they pronounce certain words incorrectly or make grammatical errors. We forget that for most black people English is a second and sometimes third language.

I am guilty of this.

I read a short article by Gugulethu Mhlungu in the City Press‘s #trend section a few months ago where she pointed out our double standards. Gugu used the Mandoza memes as an example of how black people continue to use English as a measure of intelligence. Mandoza may have made English mistakes in the past just like Siyabonga Nomvete who was the butt of all grammatical jokes before him, but that does not make him stupid. If you read the article you will see that she used the earth tremors meme as an example. Just because Mandoza cannot speak English as well as I do with my Pretoria High School for Girls matric, does not mean he does not know the difference between a volcano and an “earthquake”.

Two weeks ago the Wits Vuvuzela reported a violent incident that was allegedly sparked by a girl confronting two students for laughing at a black lecturer unnecessarily. Apparently the two white students were sitting behind Sinethemba Memela during an Intellectual Property law lecture when she heard them laughing at Dr Malebakeng Forere for her pronunciation of the word patent. Sinethemba asked them: “why does it matter how she says patent, we all know what she means”. When I read the article I was livid. Firstly because of the attack and secondly because were laughing at something so stupid.

Then I introspected. I realised that I probably would have laughed too. It has become acceptable over the years for me to laugh at people’s pronunciation of words. It’s something I do with all my peers and we have become so used to it that we even chuckle at people without thinking about it.

There was a stage in my high school career where it was a thing to laugh at the English errors of others. We would shout “skhwa jo” (short version of Sekgowa which is Setswana for English) whenever anyone made a mistake. I once did that to my mom and she put me in my place very quickly. She said even though her generation had Bantu Education, they speak better English than we do and their vocabulary is superior to ours. She said we insult them for their accents but all our “proper” accents are good for is working in call centres.

I felt so small. I realised then that the superior “command” of English that I thought I had really amounts to nothing. So for a while after that I deliberately watched how I behaved but soon fell into the same trap again because in my circles it is very easy to fall back into the trap of being condescending towards people and their accents.

We look down on people for the way they speak English forgetting that it is not an African language and the fact that we speak more than two words of the language is already more than enough. We commend white people who make attempts at speaking our languages no matter how feeble. We clap for them and celebrate because “at least they tried” right? Why do we not do the same for black people – most of whom have had to overcome a great deal of challenges to be educated in the first place?

I met an intelligent guy recently who shared a bit of his story with me. He grew up in Venda, Limpopo and his command of English was poor when he got to university. He had to work so hard to cope academically and migrated towards others who spoke Tshivenda to fit in socially. He had to work extra hard to prove to himself and to those around him that he was just as smart as everyone else, simply because his English wasn’t the standard. It dawned on me that I was one of those kids who laughed at those who weren’t “fortunate” enough to have been taught in English from grade one. It dawned on me that I have been a snob for the longest time and incredibly, I thought I was far from one.

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