August 30, 2007

My First Xhosa Teacher

There are a number of challenges ahead of me as I adjust to life in Mthatha but the dominant one right now is language. While many people in Mthatha speak English as a second language, seemingly everyone who lives here would prefer to speak Xhosa. In Itipini, there are many people who have never learned English and can only speak Xhosa. Since I want to be able to help them and learn from them, learning their language seems like a good first step.

The trouble for me and Xhosa is that the language has three click sounds that are used like any other consonants in English. I am having so much trouble both making the click sounds properly and hearing the different click sounds when other people talk. How can you learn a word if you quite literally cannot even say it?

While many people have been supportive of my attempts thus far and will tell me how to say something if I ask, there is one particular person who should be singled out for his help.

Yele (yeh-lay) is about six years old and I happened to sit by him the first day I went to the pre-school. Like many other children in Itipini, he has a great smile and craves any attention any adult will give him. With all of the children, I have been trying to get them to the point where I can point at something and say it in English and they say it in Xhosa. For the vast majority of the children, when I say the English word, they just repeat it after me. And when I say, “In Xhosa” they just laugh and repeat how I have mispronounced Xhosa. (As near as I can tell, I make the “q” click when I should make the “x” click and so I am basically saying Qosa, which is nonsense.)

But Yele gets what I am trying to do. I will point at a body part and he will say, for instance, “elbow – nqlilile.” Today a plane flew past and he pointed at it and said, “Oolobrai, oolobrai” and made his arms into wings and flew around. All the children call me “teacher” (pronounced almost like “t-shirt” – “tee-shaw”) but Yele today pointed at himself and said “Yele” and pointed at his friend and said “Caspah.” I pointed at myself and said “Jesse” and he repeated it after me quite well.

Most importantly, Yele has been pointing out how I am messing up. For instance, the Xhosa word for elbow has a “q” click – you’re supposed to put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth and then click. Yele (and everyone else) does it effortlessly but I strain so hard the tendons on my neck stand out. Yele noticed that and kept pointing at his throat. I didn’t get it at first but I finally realized what he was doing and realized I was trying to hard and didn’t have to make my clicks so pronounced. When I (finally) pronounce a word right, the nod he gives me is worth so much. I’d almost describe it as business-like, as if to say, “great, got that one, let’s move on.”

Yele’s English is better than my Xhosa but not by much so I’ve been trying to return the favour. Today, I pointed at my shirt that said “Life is good” and had them repeat it. They got it quite well but I couldn’t figure out how to explain what it meant in their terms, though it is perhaps not a phrase they need right now.

I am learning about the importance of non-verbal communication. Even though Yele and I cannot speak the same language, when we play and learn together it still feels like we are sharing something important.


Mary Brennan said...

Jesse - I can't wait to hear you once you've mastered the clicks! Stick with the kids - they're your best teachers.

Jody said...

Once a camp counselor, always a camp counselor. But I, too, cannot wait to hear you speak Xhosa with some fluidity.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jesse--So glad to hear these early postings, and rejoice with you about the events of the journey to SA that brought unexpected benefits. Glad that you have met individuals who are teaching you and connecting with you. Do keep working on those clicks--