It still surprises me that people are surprised that a Zulu mum speaks isiZulu to her children. And by my surprise I mean tired and sad because I know why it seems unusual or even radical, and especially so, because our children are biracial.
I try not to make a big deal out of speaking to our children in isiZulu but I get a lot of questions about it, too many questions actually…
There are a lot of myths and straight lies about children’s potential for linguistic development and verbal expression.
Do your research about the benefits of multilingualism for your children. When you know what’s what, misinformation and hidden agendas will fall back.
One of the biggest and most popular myths is that children get confused by many languages being spoken at once so it’s best to speak only English to children so that they will be fluent, (and twang) and pretty much, the implication of that is they will excel academically, and excel in life nje by virtue of a twang. Private and former Model C schools love this myth, and they’re still pushing it, for their own misguided (or sinister) reasons.
There is nothing incidental about making sure our children are multilingual when we live in a world that is linguistically and culturally dominated by English.
They get English at pre-school, from their father, the world in general, and on television. There is no reason for them to hear it from me too. I just can’t.
Our approach to language is quite straightforward – we speak, sing and read to our children exclusively in our respective home languages: isiZulu and English. Their nanny Mpati is from Matatiele so she also adds seSotho into their box of language treasures.
Our children took a bit longer to start talking, because of the different languages they’re exposed to, but now, their Zunglish is unparalleled 🔥🔥🔥 We aren’t pedantic about all the mixing and codeswitching because oksalayo, they’re expressing themselves in and both understand isiZulu and English.
To be honest though, it does take a bit more work and consideration to ensure that they speak and understand isiZulu, especially when we as their parents speak English to each other 70-80% of the time.
I’d be kidding myself if I thought they’d somehow pick up isiZulu through osmosis and my intentions and not through my 1. creative, 2. consistent and 3. conscious effort. It’s not a big deal, and it’s not difficult, but my effort is required. Much like with every other aspect of parenting – it’s not random or incidental.
Here are the 3 Cs of our approach to language development:
A few years ago, it was a struggle to find good quality isiZulu children’s books. I even struggled to find uMasihambisane for example, and I hated all the “uSipho udlala ibhola. Dlala Sipho.” types of unimaginative crap that was available. I improvised by translating the existing English books we had. Tim would read the English version and I would read the isiZulu version.
We read together at bedtime, but also on demand. When the children want a story, we oblige whenever possible.
Every year, there are more and better quality isiZulu children’s books available, there is now more variety, that is more widely available, I keep my eyes open and buy whenever possible.
I also had to reteach myself isiZulu nursery rhymes, folk songs, folk tales and children’s games that I’d left behind in childhood. My family sends voicenotes to jog my memory, I also play these for the kids.
We also play a lot of music for them – Black Mambazo, Brenda, Big Nuz, Madala Kunene, Brown Dash, whatever nje. Then of course, I make up songs too.
Language is something we learn from birth. I speak isiZulu with them from birth. This is another obvious one, but I sometimes speak to myself in English, so I have to remember to put isiZulu first when communicating with our children.
And of course, it’s taking everything from point 1. and applying it every day, and encouraging everyone around us to do the same, in English or isiZulu when they’re with our children.
Our children also take isiZulu as a class at school, just to impress the idea that isiZulu, like English can be found in other environments and not just in their mother’s lap.
This is about simply putting some awareness and mindfulness into what comes out of my mouth, for example: a) taking care not to code switch even when they speak to me in English. b) Minding my own vocabulary and grammar. Again these are obvious but sometimes something obvious is easily overlooked or forgotten.
Here is a big one for me: Speaking words of love, affirmation and kindness in isiZulu. So often we joke about our mother tongue being a linguistic wet waslap to discipline us and bring us back to earth, and as such I think the connotations can be that our languages are harsh and rigid. I think it’s as important that for our children, isiZulu is associated with tenderness, compassion and care so that they don’t develop an unconscious aversion to it as they grow.
None of what I’ve shared is groundbreaking. Children don’t just magically learn languages but we don’t need to overthink it either. Just speak, sing and read to them consistently and they will catch up. I know a lot of mums struggle with this overthinking because we are constantly grappling with issues of culture and identity, and language is caught up in that. Working mums especially, often feel guilty about being away from their children all day so they don’t think they can speak, sing and read to their kids enough and that guilt and anxiety makes them afraid to even try. Just gooi man. It’s ok.
I guess I’m just affirming that every aspect of raising our children requires conscious thought and consistent effort. I’m also saying there’s no formula – only time and effort.
Also forgive yourself, but don’t stop trying if it’s important to you.