The Second Language Struggle Is Real For Kids In South Africa

I used to be too scared to ask to go to the toilet in English.

06/06/2017 03:58 SAST | Updated 06/06/2017 08:12 SAST
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The challenge of speaking a second language (a language that is other than your mother tongue) in school is one that brought me many nightmares in primary school and later on in high school. There would be instances where I would rather run the risk of wrecking my bladder than speaking English in class to ask the teacher if I could: "Um, go out" (permission to go to the toilet). This bladder-risking "bravery" was rooted in me not wanting to sound stupid in front of my classmates and, more importantly, in front of friends who would naturally make jokes during lunch break.

I speak candidly of this problem now, but back then it was a serious issue, one that I still believe runs the risk of holding one back from learning a language quicker in school and one that spills over into adulthood. This was just in English; you can only imagine how much worse this feeling became when Afrikaans was brought into the picture. A friend and I laughed a few days ago about how, in Afrikaans class, we would sacrifice a mark (a test score) purely because the teacher asked you to justify your answer to her in class... in Afrikaans.

We both recall reciting the line "Nee Juffrou, dis reg so" (No, it's fine Miss), just to avoid further engagement on the topic at hand. We sacrificed a mark, something that boosted your average and eventually affected your application to university. This lead me to the troubling question of how many opportunities schoolchildren, second language-speaking youths and adults miss out on because of their fear of sounding stupid when speaking a language other than that of their own?

Accent does not equal or represent intelligence

The second language struggle is one that travels with you, from primary to high school and right into the university gates, until you learn to shake it off. In my postgraduate years of tutoring first-year students, I saw this fear and complex rearing its head in certain students. I do not wish to generalise or operate under the assumption that all students who did not want to participate were afraid owing to them feeling that their English was not at the same level as their peers.

Lord knows I have been guilty of maintaining silence in tutorials because of assignments (or tasks) not being done, being bored or simply not feeling like participating in the discussion. But for some students, the fear of not "sounding right" was and continues to be a major cause for their hesitation. So again, you hold yourself back from learning and engaging in something solely because you are not sure of how you will sound.

This is not an attempt to make it seem as though the stares and giggles that come after pronouncing a word incorrectly do not sting a bit, nor is it encouragement for the mispronunciation of words (in academia and the world, in general, you will be judged for the blunders). But at times it is helpful (at least for me) to remember this one line that a primary teacher told me:

"Do not worry about it; these languages came with a ship."

There needs to come a point where we as second (third, fourth, fifth...) language speakers acknowledge that accent does not equal or represent intelligence. The sad reality is that in as much as we are and have been victims of the ridicule, we at times end up being enforcers of the same kind of bullying. See the cycle? It needs to stop.