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Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za

Taal | Language > isiXhosa

Between languages: Shané Kleyn interviews Tessa Dowling about the status of Xhosa

Tessa Dowling - 2009-09-30

Tessa, you took a long break from teaching at UCT. What did you do during those 12 years?

I set up a multimedia language development company called African Voices, with an ex-student of mine, Christine Dunckley. She is a brilliant computer programmer and I love making materials that make it easy for people to learn African languages. So after producing the interactive multimedia programme Speak Xhosa With Us for the University of Cape Town, we elicited the help of African language specialist Derek Gowlett and ex-student Khethiwe Ngwenya to produce its Zulu equivalent, Speak Zulu With Us. Speak Zulu With Us received top marks from Yale University’s language software review panel and is used by people wanting to learn Zulu all around the world – we even have clients in Dubai! We have also produced a range of audio CDs, Everyday Phrases, for Sotho, Tswana, Pedi, Zulu and Xhosa. So, really, what I have been doing for 12 years is making materials, teaching companies how to speak Xhosa and trying to run a business. I was just getting to the stage of “Can I really teach another government employee how to say 'I can’t help you' when Dr Nyamende from our Section phoned me and suggested I return to UCT.

You say that urban Xhosa is a far cry from the version generally taught at universities. Why is this?

This is because people mix with speakers of other languages – at home, at work, at school, in the shops, in the taxis. If everyone is talking about itransport instead of isithuthi, then itransport becomes the dominant word and some speakers forget what the original word was. It loses currency. We also have multilingual TV programmes, and a linguistic landscape that is dominated by English signage – people absorb these other languages without even thinking about it. Young Xhosa speakers are experimental, stylish and innovative – if they like the sound of a word in one language they will just use it in their language. If it is successful it survives the test of time.

Can you give us any examples of this urban Xhosa that is influenced by the age of the cellphone, the SMS, blogging, MXit and the rise of English?

Well, the verb to SMS in Xhosa is uku-esemesa and to charge a cellphone is ukutshaja iselula – these are just Xhosa renditions of English words, but I feel we need to include these words in our dictionaries as there are no other words for them there – almost as though the dictionary makers had arrested Xhosa culture in a kind of 1950s time warp.

However, you do get some anomalies in that most Xhosa speakers like to write full Xhosa sentences when they SMS in Xhosa – they feel it is kind of disrespectful to their language to abbreviate it – but they feel fine about using very abbreviated English in SMS language. Blogging in Xhosa is generally characterised by a fair amount of code-switching, which is understandable, since someone who blogs is probably able to switch languages easily. Here is an example of this kind of language (available on youtube, accessed on 2009/06/05) – the writer is commenting on the Afro-Soul sensation Camagwini:

Very proud o u Camagwini! Uyintombi nenkosazana yamaXhosa ngokwenyani [You are a girl and a true Xhosa princess], especially in this DNA & "Model C" age whereby every1 wants 2 b "Paris Hilton". Why, why and maara why b a fake and not 2 b proud of yo own roots and heritage???? – Camagwini (nd) CAMAGWINI – Imvumi EPK [electronic press kit]. Music video with comments.

The Xhosa here is used to emphasise the writer’s knowledge of Xhosa and is in perfect Xhosa, but the writer also wants to show her allegiance to funky, short-cutting English.

You say that you want your department to have an ear in the townships, but is there literature available for your students written in this “kinetic” urban Xhosa? Do contemporary African-language texts and sources reflect the spoken version?

It is up to us to do the research – we are academics, after all, and if we don’t research the new “kinetic” varieties that are emerging in the townships, then who will? That does not mean that we are going to abandon the teaching of standard Xhosa; it is just that we need to expose both our 1st- and 2nd-language students of Xhosa to varieties other than the standard, because:

a. Marketing and advertising executives call on language experts to help them write and translate their copy. If the language expert is a speaker of standard Xhosa and has never been exposed to, or analysed, urban varieties, that “expert” is really not useful when the message needs to be broadcast to a specific audience that adopts a specific variety.

b. People involved in educational and other interventions need to be informed about language realities. This does not mean that we cannot use standard Xhosa, but there needs to be a sensitivity to how language has changed and the extent to which certain words and terminologies are no longer used, even by relatively standard Xhosa language speakers.

c. Second-language speakers are often motivated to learn Xhosa because they want to work in predominantly Xhosa-speaking areas. If we completely ignore the fact that people speak urban varieties it is very disempowering for our students when they try out their “new” Xhosa only to be faced with the blank expressions of a youth who does not know what they are talking about.

Do you think Xhosa will survive globalisation?

Yes, if we don’t get too hung up about the fact that Xhosa is changing. If we try and keep it pure and if we criticise everyone who deviates slightly from the standard, then we will surely kill it off. If we embrace the changes, the innovation, the creativity, and if we engage in active research into this change, then we will not only survive but flourish. We also need to encourage non-Xhosa speakers to learn the language – the more fun and funky we make it, the more speakers we will have, the more active campaigners for its use, the more likely it is that it will avoid extinction.

Are students generally interested in studying African Languages nowadays?

I wish I could say yes, but the sad answer is no. I think this will change as we spearhead and pioneer breathtakingly fresh research and establish university courses that really engage with the issue of language as being a key indicator of trends in contemporary urban behaviours.

In which direction do you think the field is headed? What developments would you like to see?

I think we are going to see a move towards African language research that connects with other research – for example, it makes no sense to study the behavioural patterns of Xhosa youth without being aware of how these patterns are reflected in the language they speak. Health is a huge issue, but how do Xhosa speakers talk about their health? What can the language do to inform us of the connection between thought, culture and health?

The field also needs to hook on to the fact that performing artists who use their mother tongues are hugely successful – what does this tell us about language and identity? Are canny commercialists realising this link before the academics are?

Where did you learn Xhosa?

I learnt Xhosa at the University of Cape Town. I was 24 when I started – that was 25 years ago! I was given a very good grammatical base, which enabled me to understand the patterns of the language as I continued self-study. It is a daily thing with me – I listen to Umhlobo Wenene fm (Radio Xhosa) as often as possible (usually when I am stuck in the traffic) and try to learn a new word or expression everyday. I will never give up! Xhosa speakers generously listen to me chatting in Xhosa and exclaim “Yho, yho, yho! Wasifundela phi isiXhosa?!" (Wow, wow, wow! Where did you learn Xhosa?!) It was also excellent for me to do my MA research in some of the remotest villages of the Eastern Cape, where some people even had to ask me “Uthini xa ufuna ukuthi ‘Molo’ ngesiNgesi?” (What do you say when you want to say "Hello" in English?)

What inspired your company, African Voices?

While I was working at UCT (1997) I was approached by the Multimedia Education Project to work on developing a multimedia program for Xhosa. I was very excited until I tried to learn how to do computer programming. Eish! Programming was one language that totally defeated me. One evening, walking with a friend on Noordhoek beach, I bumped into an ex-student, Christine Dunckley. I told her of my woes, and couldn’t understand why she looked so excited. “I want to program your work for you, Tessa,” she said. They were the sweetest words I ever did hear. Christine has an incredibly creative eye and also is a keen student of Xhosa, so she was just the right person to do the job. She put a lot of her own money and time into the development of Speak Xhosa With Us – and so was able to secure the copyright of the program for us to start our business African Voices. I think it was time for me to do something else because I had become a little stale as an academic and there is nothing like running your own business to make you appreciate the incredible intellectual energy that exists in a university environment.

Please tell us more about your website, www.afrilang.uct.ac.za.

Initial work on this website was done by Dr Mantoa Rose Smouse, who heads up the Xhosa programme at the medical school. She has been very supportive of me and when I told her I wanted to create a new website she gave me everything she had been working on. I was then able to include on the website information about the new courses we will be offering in our Section – courses that actively engage with the way in which African languages impact on and reflect contemporary society. Here are two extracts from the website about two of the new courses:


Course outline: This course actively engages students in exploring the vocabularies of African languages with regard to sex, love and taboo. It encourages students to explore the way in which African languages are used to talk about love and sex and promotes critical and creative thinking on the topic of taboo in African languages.


Course outline: What happens in African languages texts and talk that is different from or similar to those of English or Afrikaans? This course looks at the history of texts and talk in African languages, from missionary times to the present. Through ample exemplification the course encourages students to critically examine African language texts and talk as a complex and dynamic field of study.