Motivation for learning any language and specifically isiZulu is unique to every family; but in the South African context, we can all agree on the vast social, cultural, historical and practical benefits to speaking this language. isiZulu is spoken by more than 20% of South Africa as a first language and by more than half the country as a second language. Given these statistics, it’s staggering that so little attention has been given to how isiZulu is taught and learnt. There are cognitive benefits to learning additional languages that include memory, creativity, and problem solving. Research also supports that children learning language from a young age will acquire a perfect accent. But some of the main reasons to make isiZulu learning a priority – is the increased sensitivity towards diversity/different cultures and languages, better social skills and adaptability, as a foundation to acquire additional languages and the increased opportunities these skills will provide (in addition to speaking such a useful local language) in the future world of work.

This article is all about what you can do to make isiZulu a priority in your family, and some practical tips (and who you can hold accountable) for ensuring your child makes realistic progress in their learning journey.

Firstly,  you must ensure that your child is receiving enough time in isiZulu both at school and at home. Most schools cut language learning first, although research proves that time in language arts has an invaluable effect on the brain. We feel that 1.5hrs per week is the very least you can get away with and still make progress and you should be insisting that in some form your child is exposed to enough isiZulu. This could be through a combination of forms – your Caregiver, School, and a deliberate play time with a friend in the community who speaks isiZulu. There really is no excuse, because we have ample opportunities to use this language in the South African context. Repetition is also key – a person must hear a word 500 times before it becomes part of their vocabulary, and so while it may seem boring, doing the same thing over and over (establishing good pathways in the brain) every time you greet, or ask for something, goes a long way in establishing a good foundation in isiZulu.

Your child should not be taught through flashcards and worksheets. Language is alive and especially young children must learn through playing and doing. Experiencing through their senses, and reinforcing concepts through actions.  Language must be experienced and enjoyed in order for children to learn, it must be part of life – and you need to make it part of yours. Without necessity, a reason to speak isiZulu, they simply won’t learn the language. So we advocate for the One-Person-One-Language approach, where isiZulu speakers and teachers only speak good isiZulu to your child – no translation or mixing language. This might seem extreme, and initially is very difficult for the child to adapt to, but is recognised as the most effective approach to acquire a new language, as a certain level of discomfort is part of the driving force behind motivating a child to learn/engage. A child’s brain is so efficient with information, that if it is not compulsory to retain this information (i.e. Zulu vocab and sentence structure) they simply won’t. Remember that children need to be exposed to vocabulary that is practical, that they can go out and use immediately. Young children especially have no inhabitions, and will willingly try new words or phrases with confidence which is what you must encourage.

Your child should start their isiZulu learning when they are young, ideally between 0-6yrs. If your child is only starting their isiZulu journey in Grade 1, it is potentially too late for them. While it’s not impossible to learn language after the age of 6yrs, there are many more factors at play and it does become increasingly difficult – mainly due to so many time restrictions on children of school-going age.

You also can’t expect your child to learn a new language in a class of 20-30 kids who also cannot speak that language, against a 1 teacher who does. The ratio makes no sense, and will only serve to waste everyone’s time. Classes must be small in order to provide the best possible setting for deliberate interaction and opportunity to speak. Even if a child was wholly engaged in what the teacher is saying (which is doubtful if she’s speaking a language he is not familiar with and his friends are around) it is not enough that he/she understands everything in isiZulu, they must be put in situations where they are forced to speak. There is a completely different pathway from your brain to your mouth that must be exercised in order to establish a competent speaker. Often people can only understand another language (the connection between your ear and your brain) but forming your own sentences, recalling vocabulary on demand, and gaining confidence to speak are the other side of that coin and you cannot consider yourself a speaker without them.

Another tip is to check whether the school  has it’s own isiZulu space. Many schools send isiZulu teachers into existing classes to conduct their lessons, oblivious to the psychological barrier of trying to change an inherently English space. Children are simply unable to switch to another language, no matter how hard they try, so we emphasise that isiZulu classes/time should be in new/neutral environments that can be ‘created’ into isiZulu spaces – for example a particular coffee shop/park, part of the field/house.

If you want your child to take isiZulu (and it’s speakers seriously) then best you start doing the same. We like to tell our children how to behave and act, but forget that the biggest influence on them is our actions. You cannot instruct your child on one hand to put effort into learning isiZulu “because it’s so important” and then in the same breath disrespect or undermine the Zulu speakers in your home/office. You are the greatest influence in your child’s life and your own personal effort with isiZulu will be an example and motivating force to them. Even learning just a few phrases that you use regularly will go a long way to communicate your commitment to the language. Do not fail to use the language learning tools at your disposal; you cannot reasonably expect your child to put into practice what you never have.

Have reasonable expectations. You can read more about how to have realistic expectations in an article I wrote here. Bear in mind that language learning is a process, usually very slow, with lots of ups and downs on the way, and that small progress must be celebrated. Understand the process of acquiring language: moving from feeling completely lost and isolated to understanding the instructions/questions given and carrying them out. If the child has stopped reverting or using English as a mode of communication, and if they are able to repeat and make themselves understood in specific contexts, this is great progress when it comes to language learning, and should not be overlooked!

Also understand that language learning is contextual – and not necessarily transferable across settings when a child is young. Later into adulthood, they will be able to take things they have learned, acquire new vocabulary, and apply it to new contexts, but for the most part the focus should be on competency in the most practical contexts: preschool themes like colours and numbers, where with just a little bit of information you can start interacting with the world around you. Use role-playing as a tool to recreate opportunities for isiZulu interaction in the real world. Learn greetings, basic questions and responses related to these contexts and eventually, if you and the teacher have done things right, they will be able to hold a basic conversation with a new person/friend about what they did on the weekend. Do not expect your child to be able to talk to strangers in isiZulu outside of these contexts (they cannot even do that in English really!) The best you can hope for during these young years (0-6yrs) is a love for isiZulu and the people that speak it, a confidence in the language, competence within these specific contexts, and the motivation to learn more because of past success and positive experiences.

How you can support your  Child’s isiZulu Learning?

  • Don’t quiz your child on what they have learnt in isiZulu – your child will not be able to tell you even if they did because your dominant language (usually English) is preventing them from needing to access the isiZulu part of their brain. Rather rely on teacher feedback or ask for video footage of the classes to gauge what took place in the lesson
  • Make use of any and all isiZulu support resources (i.e. Zulu radio, Takalani sesame, ipad games, books and CD’s), even develop your own!
  • Allow your child to showcase what they have learnt via a song/video/activity that they get to lead you in, or be in charge of
  • Have access to isiZulu songs that you listen to (and dance to) as a family
  • Foster relationships with other Zulu families or Caregivers who also speak isiZulu. Set up regular times to hang out with them
  • Give a lot of verbal affirmation that you’re proud of them, that you love to hear them speak Zulu, how valuable it is (they need you to give them the reason why they are doing it, until they can understand the value of it themselves)
  • Incentivise progress or combat their lack of motivation with external motivators. This might be necessary until they have their own internal motivators
  • Learn alongside them and try set an example for them
  • Resolve as a family (a united front) that you are committed to the process regardless of your child’s temporary feelings or the ups and downs of the journey
  • Insist your child doesn’t just comprehend isiZulu but that they respond/speak isiZulu
  • Show respect to isiZulu people and cultures
  • Participate in cooking/baking some traditional isiZulu food
  • Don’t give up

I want to reinforce the fact that no one thing you do will be the reason your child learns this language. Your approach needs to be multifaceted – including all the stakeholders like schools, friends, caregivers, grandparents and your community – because it will be all their collective efforts that will result in effective learning of isiZulu.

Remember this is a marathon, not a sprint, and your investment is not into results tomorrow, but rather in a changed future for your child – where, as adults, they use this language to build bridges, further their careers in this country, and acquire additional languages with ease.

ZuluMites has a range of services that support families who wish to have their children learn isiZulu effectively. Please contact us if you would like more information about our programmes.