How English is not just English

I actually didn’t know which language experience I should write about, as you encounter several languages here in South Africa, so this might be more a general account than anything else.

As Stellenbosch and the Western Cape are very Afrikaans, I signed up for a language course at the university. Afrikaans being a mix between English, Dutch and German (also Portuguese, Bantu languages and Malay, but to a lesser extent), I thought it would be quite quick to learn. The beginning was indeed pretty easy, as you understand a lot of the words because of their similarity to German and the grammar is rather simple. However, I felt that exactly its similarity to Dutch and German made it then difficult to pronounce it correctly, as I always seemed to sound German, no matter how hard I tried. At the end of the semester I can now read and understand most of the things, however, I would not be able to have a long conversation, let alone sound Afrikaans.

As I did an exchange year in an English-speaking country before, and am immersed in an English-speaking environment in my private life as well, I was never really challenged by the fact that I am going to study in English in Stellenbosch. Hence, the courses and also the social interactions went fine. However, although I am used to it, I still find that my greatest struggle during studying abroad is writing papers. The research and reading take much more time in English than in German, and the production of a coherent academic text even more, as I need to find fancy synonyms and pay more attention to the grammar and orthography than I would at my home university. I think an important lesson here is that you simply have to accept the fact that you need more time than a native speaker, and to then time it appropriately.

To me, the greatest struggle in my social life is that I cannot express myself with the same little nuances as I would back home in my native language. So an opinion might seem softer because of the vocabulary used; an ironic statement might be mistaken as a “true” one, a reply might sound too friendly, not expressing the frustration you actually feel; and so on. I believe these small nuances somewhat change your personality, as the way you express yourself is a very large part of your character.

Interestingly, you can tell right away if someone is Afrikaans, English, or Xhosa when you hear them talk English. They all have their own version of English, even with their own words and pronunciation rules. So you can imagine that in the beginning it was often for me hard to understand the full conversation between South Africans, if they were all using their  “Englishes”. In addition, the rainbow nation has a variety of immigrants from many parts in the world, which adds to the mix of different “Englishes”. So, although it is not necessary to the main understanding of the conversation, I still wanted to learn the local expressions, as it is part of their culture and daily life communication. I and all my international friends unconsciously adapted little words and fixed expressions South Africans (at least in the Western Cape) use daily. I wonder how long these will stay with us once we are all back in our home countries?

Vanessa Zehnder

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