We all know that there is great value in ensuring our children grow up speaking isiZulu. Schools know it, families know it, yet why are we not getting this right?

We run many programmes and services that encourage families and young children to learn isiZulu in a fun, engaging, and memorable way. We’ve researched how people learn language, studied models form multilingual countries where they are getting it right, and over the last 3 years we have tweaked our own methodology; and from this research and experience we can sum up a few of the reasons why South Africans are not measuring up when it comes to learning languages – specifically isiZulu:

  1. People don’t force us to

This may sound like finger-pointing here, but it’s not. It’s just an observation. Due to various reasons in our political past, conversing isiZulu has never been forced on anyone. It makes learning it harder, and so I suppose my big encouragement to isiZulu speakers is to get so committed to having others speak your own language that we have to! The Afrikaners have done this and the English certainly do this. Be bold, hold your ground, love your language so fiercely that others simply must talk to you in isiZulu. And as an aside, if someone goes out of their way to speak isiZulu to you, respond with encouragement!

  1. We have unrealistic expectations

I have heard that people are extremely unforgiving towards second (or third) language learners, often assessing their ability in comprison to a first language. Please note that language is not linear or equal, you can feel completely comfortable in an area, and be WAY out of your depth in another. “Conversational” is such a strange concept in terms of language, because it depends what you are conversing about! Be kinder to yourself, and others and applaud yourselves for every milestone regardless how small.

  1. We don’t get others on board

It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. Well it most certainly takes a community of like-minded people to raise a child in a new language. Getting people on board with your vision to raise your child in isiZulu will mean that you have to have the conversation over, and over, and over again with anyone who will listen: the child-minders, families at church, granny, grampa, the nanny and the nursery-school teachers. Win people over to the big picture, you cannot do it alone.

  1. We give up too easily

This kind of plays into number 2, but we think that a year of ‘immersion’ here, or a few books there is going to get us to where we want to be in isiZulu and it simply won’t. This is a long road, and there are many bumps along the way. It’s more a case of two steps forward and one step back for a whole lot of years.

  1. Understanding and communicating are two different skills

Many people, myself included at one stage, will believe they are proficient in a language like isiZulu when they understand a lot of what is going on around them. But the connection between your ear and your brain is an entirely different system to the one between your brain and your mouth. Comprehension is one side of a coin, and you are not communicating unless the connections between what you want to say and your mouth are well established.

  1. We think you can learn isiZulu through English

This is where schools get it wrong. It’s not that they employ Zulu Teachers who do not speak isiZulu, it’s that they don’t empower them (or equip them) to make their classrooms an isiZulu environment. This is one of our main arguments and the basis for almost everything we do at ZuluMites – and it’s because all the research points to the fact that in the early years (before kids even understand language) it is taught most effectively through an immersion environment.

  1. We simply don’t try!

Some may argue that it’s a confidence issue and trying new things like speaking a new language is harder when you have inhibitions and don’t want to sound like an idiot. You’re right. You will sound like an idiot. But this should not deter you. Remember: speaking a language badly is the first step to speaking it well.

We often tell parents that regardless of the activities their child might be involved in through ZuluMites, a parent’s influence is far greater when they see you trying to greet, thank and converse in isiZulu. Simply put, nothing replaces that example and effort.

I don’t think we have a multilingual culture in SA despite the fact that there are 11 official languages. I say this because multilingualism is more about a mindset, tackling some of these issues above, but also within our society. More and more families need to take it on board to make isiZulu (among other African languages) a priority. It needs to come from across the race lines. Simply put, we need to do better and drop the excuses. This is something that needs to happen, and if we don’t lead the way, another generation will miss out. Time to put on those big-people pants.