When English was for self-defense…


I grew up in an Afrikaans house, television only came to South Africa when I was in school, and even then we had lots of Afrikaans programs. I’m sure there was English ones that were good as well, but English was something “those red-necks” spoke.  Oh yes, and it was a school subject; something like a self-defense class… English was something you had to do and sometimes needed. Useful, like karate.

As I grew up this changed…  Interestingly enough, in the later school years, I enjoyed my prescribed books in English much more than Afrikaans; the stories were just so much better! I developed an interest in computers; I went to a “dual-medium” university, and found I preferred the lectures in the same language as the book… When I hit the workplace, life has changed and I found my co-workers who went to Afrikaans universities confusing to talk shop with… Today I sometimes feel more competent in English than my mother-tongue (at least in professional work environments); scary stuff.

I many times wish that I paid more attention to English as a subject; that my attitude were different. Not initially being “serious” about the English language has left it legacy.  Language errors for me are abound, it’s getting better, but it is a constant struggle. How I wished I paid more attention to the grammar rules, and how I wished I read more English and used the dictionary more often!

Of course I had many years to work on my English skills and it’s probably (hopefully) much better now than say 25 years ago. However, I often see my students struggling with the same issues I had. Many of my students are from non-English backgrounds, and struggle with similar issues as what I struggled (struggle?) with.

I remembered all this when I saw a link to this list of typical “word mistakes” – useful if you tend to get words wrong!.

Maybe English (or any language) is not so different from say learning a martial art for self-defense… One needs to get the basics right before going to the next level. To do so we need to be open to criticism and practice a lot.

Do you practice your English enough?

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7 Responses to When English was for self-defense…

  1. Laurie says:

    Maybe it was the idea that English was like “self-defense” that made your writing skills so focused and targetted. Perhaps not so much self-defense but offensive (not in the social sense of the word but in the sports of military sense of the word – pre-empt any problems)

    • rabotha says:

      Interesting perspective, you may be on to something. But maybe initially I was like a kid who do not want to do karate, but were forced…

      Self-defense may actually not be the best analogy after all; the focus associated with martial arts may be a very good thing – something I sorely lacked earlier in life (maybe still)

  2. Darelle says:

    A further question – do you read enough English to ensure that you improve and practice your language? In a former life, I was a language teacher (English, isiXhosa and German)and I could always tell those who read often from those who do not read. Those who read often, are often more confident to use the language as well. Maybe because their vocab is extensive?

    • rabotha says:

      Excellent point. I think that is what originally “saved” me – the fact that I found English literature more fun than Afrikaans 🙂 I notice exactly the same phenomena with my students: readers are better writers!

  3. Jean Thomas says:

    Well said, I am going to quote your post!

  4. angcwabe says:

    I’m coming from a Xhosa environment. I grew up under a pure Xhosa society. English was just not important it was just a language that didn’t exist even at school our English teacher was using Xhosa to teach English.

    If you are speaking English you would be considered as someone who is not part of us someone who is leaving on his island alone and nobody is going to care about you and you wouldn’t get any recognition. People will hate you.

    It became a very serious problem when I get to varsity where there was not even a single black lecture you can imagine everything is English. You get so much intimidate to see a man like Prof. Botha walking down the corridor.

    First year was too hard and painful but I told myself that I don’t have any choice I am forced to learn if I want to be successful one day. Atleast now its better than before I can get myself heard and I can hear very well. In spite it all I have managed to finish my Info.Tech. Diploma within a record time 3 years became 3 years. I never use the language barrier as an excuse. Yes it is my weakness and a very big weakness but it will never stop me from reaching the stars.

    I am spending most of my time reading building up my vocabulary and I want to start writing I think that will help
    me too, I am also doing a little bit practice of public speaking.

    It is my firm belief that one I will perform a presentation on a boardroom somewhere in overseas as CEO or Owner of one of the biggest ICT Company in South Africa. When that happens I will be having a Prof title and English is not going to be an issue at all. This is my dream and I always say “If you can dream about something that means its possible. I am sure when Nelson Mandela was growing up in Qunu no one knew that he is the man that will liberate South Africa and his life will be celebrated internationally.

    • rabotha says:

      Thanks for sharing Ayanda, hopefully you don’t feel intimidated by people like me anymore. It is commendable to not use language as an excuse; I think the Xhosa (and other African language) speakers had even more problems than the Afrikaans speaking people. Both English and Afrikaans represents the language of the oppressor, and I can imagine that that must make the world quite difficult for the ones that wished to learn these languages!
      Language at the end of the day is about communication, and communication is about connecting people. Only if we can connect to people, and can help connecting people can we truly change the world. I therefore think your reading, writing and public speaking aims are the right way to go, and I applaud you for that. Don’t sell yourself short, you writing and speaking is fine; remember nobody’s is perfect anyway. Besides, you are streets ahead of many in terms of attitude. Do yourself a favor and start writing on that blog you created! It can only enrich your life and possible the life of others. Don’t measure yourself against perfection, measure yourself against yourself; remember nobody is you-er than you!

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