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Being Bilingual at UCT: Language Bias on Campus

UCT is so English that I, as an Afrikaans speaker, speak English to other native Afrikaans speakers on campus.

Upon entering UCT, a space dominated by English, I became aware for the first time of how thick my accent actually is.  This awareness was coupled with a sense of self-consciousness and the idea that my English was not good enough. Suddenly, I felt humiliated every time I mispronounced a word or when I jumbled my “is” and “are”.

My feeling of humiliation stemmed from the idea that English carries an aura of authority, knowledge and expertise. The notion of English as superior has its roots in colonialism. The language bias on campus reflects that the space on campus is still deeply entrenched in colonialism. Classes, tutorials, textbooks and readings are in English. For people who speak English as a first additional language, the ubiquity of English can hamper academic progress. A first-year Humanities student, whose home language is isiZulu, told me that people who do not speak English as a home language are expected to be as adept at English as those who speak English as a home language. All presentations are delivered in English and all people are evaluated in the same way, irrespective of whether English is their first, second, or third language. The student mentioned that, “It’s hard to do a 50-page reading without understanding maybe 50% or 60% of the words used.” Readings are supposed to illuminate the lecture content, but it actually makes the content harder to understand if English is not one’s home language. When marks are detracted each time you spell a word wrong in an essay, and if you used the same word ten times, it sucks.

I spoke to a third-year Electro-Mechanical student, whose home language is isiXhosa. He said that the language bias on campus has disadvantaged him “in such a way that when I want to ask something I first need to think of how I’m going to put it in English and most of the time the information gets lost in translation, making the question unclear to the next person, for example, the tutor. Sometimes it becomes so hard to put it in English I end up not asking the question altogether.”

The first-year Humanities student also said that “It’s sometimes hard to understand a simple content, the reason being it’s written in English. Just last week I was struggling with my essay, I didn’t even understand what was expected of me but when I consulted a Zulu tutor and when he explained it to me in Zulu that’s when I understood clearly and I was able to start my essay.” The student also mentioned that it is hard to ask questions in class because he cannot articulate his questions and because of this he then has a “dreadful stammer”. Language bias on campus causes some people to feel inept and humiliated.

Language bias not only impedes academic progress, but it also plays a role in the way one’s identity is shaped.  My ability to write, think and speak in Afrikaans has gradually declined because there is little space for Afrikaans on campus. Sure, I can speak colloquial Afrikaans, but I replace an Afrikaans word with an English word in almost every sentence. When I fail to recall even the simplest of Afrikaans words during conversation, it makes me realize that my English has improved at the expense of my home language. I welcomed the change, thinking that English will be more useful to me one day than Afrikaans. But, as I became less eloquent and versed in Afrikaans and better versed in English, I lost a part of my selfhood and heritage.

The loss doesn’t feel as profound if I see it from the perspective that the beauty of language lies in the fact that it is constantly morphing and merging with other languages. Embracing English is perhaps not a bad thing. Identities, just like language, are constantly under construction. My English inevitably improved because UCT is an English dominated space. Language moulds us. I have been shaped by Afrikaans and English and this is something I welcome.

Third-year Media and Writing and English Literature student. Aspiring writer and philanthropist.
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