It’s COVID-19 around here, which means we’re all scrubbing our own toilets, trying to keep our businesses alive, and being the teachers for every subject for our children at home. It is a strange world indeed, and besides feeling totally exhausted at the end of every day, we’re feeling very ill-equipped for the task of teaching our children languages we ourselves do not speak. All of a sudden you’re the Zulu teacher and you have no idea what a Noun Class is, how to pronounce all the clicks (c,x,q), or even construct your own simple sentences –  let alone teach your child these concepts.

Well, I’m here to encourage you that the very best thing you can teach your child in this time, is the humility it requires to learn a language.

I do not think anyone is expecting you to step into the role of expert, and the very last thing you should be doing is trying to quickly learn enough to pass yourself off as a Zulu speaker. It would also be very bad form, to show your frustration and irritation with having to learn this new language, because your thinking and attitude – more than your words – will be their example. If you’re going to show that learning Zulu is difficult and a complete waste of time, then how can you expect your child to stay motivated enough to learn themselves?

So, besides keeping your attitude towards Zulu in check – how do teach Zulu if you’re not the expert?

Well, start by admitting it. When it comes to languages, children are more open-minded and therefore easier to teach because they don’t need to “know everything” straight away. They are more than happy using what little knowledge they have to their advantage – haven’t you seen them use words they do not know the meaning of in sentences to try impress you? Adults on the other hand, don’t like not knowing everything. Everything has to “make sense” and they have to figure it all out before they can use it. My advice would be to openly admit to your child that you’re not very good at Zulu, and that they are – in this particular area – more proficient. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to come to their Zulu learning time with them as the teacher? Asking them what they know and whether they can say a word, rather than trying your best to pronounce it and then teaching them incorrectly anyway?

There’s a great saying we banter around in our family all the time because we’re always learning new languages (some to a higher level of proficiency than others). It’s a quote from Desiderius Erasmus and it goes like this: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king

I would like to argue that it is likely – that while your child’s Zulu is not great – it’s probably still better than yours. So start by admitting: “This is not my area of expertise, but I do think it’s super valuable, and would really like to learn. So would it be possible if I learnt with you/you taught me, and you could teach me everything you know?”

Wouldn’t that be a new take on the ‘let’s just get this done and pass the exam’ mentality that has driven our education system for so long. Let’s instead focus on the great benefits that communicating with others in another culture brings, and highlight that as a superpower for our children to strive towards. Not a test they have to pass, or a box they have to tick. Change your attitude and show the humility we all need to have to acquire a new language.

I also believe that your child knows more than you think they do. Just because they can’t answer you when you ask: “what is … in Zulu?” does not mean they do not actually know. It simply means that the time and effort it will take to go to an entirely new section of my brain where Zulu is stored (probably right next to Afrikaans) is too much right now, and they can’t be bothered. And I don’t blame them. I’m sure you also hate being put on the spot randomly. For example, if someone walked up to me and said what is 9×7 I probably wouldn’t be able to tell them either: does that mean I don’t know my time’s tables? Well, I’m not great actually, but given time I could come up with the answer because the information is stored somewhere in my brain. Your child also has this information stored in there, even if it doesn’t readily come out when you want it to. Language is a lot about context and necessity.

My advice for when this happens, and you ask them something in Zulu that they aren’t giving you – is to give them time and encouragement. Say something like: “I know you’ve learnt this, and I’m sure if I give you a second to think about it, you’ll be able to remember. I really believe you can do it, so think a bit more and let me know when you remember, OK?”

As for learning alongside your child – games are the way to go.

Some standard ones that work every time are;
(1) a Touch and Feel bag of objects they might be familiar with. Haul one out and say the word, change things up according to different themes.
(2) Charades is great for recalling verbs, and
(3) Broken Telephone is excellent for simple phrases or sentences.

Songs are a tremendous help too, learning chunks of vocabulary even if you have no idea what you’re singing about. Remember that a little every day beats a long stretch only once a week – so try couple a bit of learning Zulu together over breakfast each morning/ at snack/ bath time. Where possible, use actions instead of English. The trick is not to keep referring to your first language as your reference point (i.e. Many people think of an English sentence then try to translate it into Zulu). This never works and will only lead to constant frustration. You need to start “thinking in Zulu” –  think about the words you DO KNOW in Zulu and try put sentences together just using those. They will be simple at first (with lots of pointing and gesticulation) but eventually, you will be amazed at what you come up with.

Repetition, repetition, repetition is the key to language learning and greater confidence.

If I hear something enough times, in enough contexts and examples: if it is sung, and then said in a sentence, and then said by someone else with a different pronunciation, my brain is taking all that information and storing it. It’s categorizing it, and I will be able to bring it out when I need to. It takes time. Children take years to learn a first language, a second language is no different. But if you trust the process, you will see results.

My hope in reading this is that you would not, as the parent, assert yourself into the position of teacher just because circumstances have forced you there. Show humility and openness to learning the way a child does, and be OK with not having all the answers. Be the example of how not to give up when things get hard, stay motivated when you’re not seeing progress, and show eagerness to master new skills. THAT example alone will be everything your children need to move forward in their own language journeys.

And remember, we’re here if you need any help along the way.