Reflections

I only speak English

By Musanete Sakupwanya, Zimbabwe:

Yes. It's true. I confess! English is the only language that comes out of my mouth with any fluidity and consistency. I try anything else, and I quickly lose confidence and it all falls apart. Yes. I only speak English.

Yes, I'm Black too. Born and bred in Zimbabwe; living in Pretoria South Africa for the last 8yrs. In Zimbabwe, I grew up learning Shona in school, but never more than that. After school I was home, with a single mother who worked very hard, and a helper who spoke good English. I loved cartoons and Michael Jackson. Not much else. I was never expected or forced to speak anything else, Maybe that was the problem. Whenever there were family functions, I was that kid: the one who always messed up the line of communication. Outside that though, it was English all the way.

However, during Shona class in school, my teachers would make it a mission to show the whole class my linguistic disability. That happened almost every year of schooling that I had to take Shona. Of course, they laughed, and laughed, and teased, and laughed…and I came across a few conversations centred solely around how I would be useless wherever I went. Why? I only speak English.

I guess I must have learnt earlier to appreciate the power of being ridiculed so publicly in front of my peers. It was always a barrier. When they launched off in Shona, I responded in English. Wait! I didn't say I don't understand any other languages. However, some people believed that, and would speak with great enjoyment about the “Dark White kid”. Who was that? Me, of course. I always knew what was said. Always. Even if I didn't get a perfect translation in my mind, their faces were always clear.

Fast forward to South Africa, with its 764 official languages…well at least that's how it felt to me! All the turbulent history, the slow recovery since 1994, and lo and behold: a distinct approach to those who didn't speak any of their languages. Well, to be fair, if you spoke the mother-tongue of where you came from, there were some people who were willing to communicate in order to learn; and coming to university meant that most people spoke English anyways, so I was safe…for a while.

You know, my first singing teacher in the varsity (I studied Music…a bit) called me to arrange a time. We spoke and decided to meet outside the music building on campus. A very lost White woman kept walking past me, and eventually asked “Hi, I'm looking for someone I'm supposed to meet here. Anyone wait here for a while? I think I missed him.” Now, immediately I knew her voice from the phone call I had had with her, and I distinctly remember telling her my name on that call (which isn't even remotely English). I just stood up and said “I think you're looking for me. You're the singing teacher right?” Her eyes exposed her shock at what she was witnessing, and her only response was “Ummm…Gosh, from your accent I thought… …” Need I say more?

You can call it what you like. I've been called many things because of it; maybe we can compare notes one day. One person in primary school called me “traitor” before punching me. He was in my class (and it was later revealed he couldn't even spell the word…small retribution). It's resulted in many confrontations with uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers, friends…etc. Some have tried to “fix” me, to no avail. One person even said to me “Your English will get you into trouble one day”, and yet, I know people who speak even better English than me and still speak 5 other languages!

It's not the fact that I speak English that gets me into trouble sometimes, it's that I only speak English that gets people saying things. Yes I understand a lot of other languages, but I suck at speaking them.

From varsity till now though, I've had to speak to groups of people. This should've been the end! This should've been the point that all this comes back to bite me royally!! But…that wasn't the case. I've spoken to all sorts of people in all sorts of communities, with all sorts of different language preferences. It would've made sense that I master another language.

Somehow, over the last 5yrs, it didn't matter where I was or who I was speaking to, I got the message across. Whenever I was asked to speak at a church or gathering of whatever kind and they asked what languages I spoke, my response was: “I only speak English”. And even in places where that should've counted against me, it never did.

And so, I have learnt something…finally.

The language you speak means nothing if you can't communicate your message well!

Yes, some might say that you can't speak English only in the hardcore Zulu/Shona/Xhosa…etc villages/communities. And that may be true. But I'm not the one being asked to go to those places, so…oh well.

My name is Musanete Farai Sakupwanya.

I only speak English.

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