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Language Liberation in Southern Africa

In January 2016, the Southern African countries had a Regional workshop. Twenty-eight people came, from five countries. I do not know how many mother tongues were present, but I would guess about a dozen.

Only two of us, who were white, were native English speakers. Yet the language used by everyone—even for the sessions (when people didn’t share a language)—was English.

It seemed to me that in my presence people were struggling to discharge. In the support group I led, I encouraged people to speak in their native tongue, but they were reluctant. So at topic-group time, despite my wearing a good number of oppressor roles, I suggested a group on language oppression and liberation.

It was so hot in the big meeting room that I suggested that our group of five meet in my room. The other people were from countries that are hotter than South Africa, and as the group went on, one by one they began to wrap themselves in blankets. So on top of everything else, I subjected them to temperature oppression! Most of them had come to the group because several languages were spoken in their countries and they imagined that I might have some ideas for managing that in RC classes and in building Communities. None of them had considered that they themselves had experienced language oppression, or were experiencing it at the workshop.

I told them about how language differences are dealt with in International RC workshops, and there was a lot of discussion about interpreting and the need for interpreters to be “properly trained.” It was a new idea for them that people might be encouraged to interpret just for their own re-emergence and to contradict isolation.

We had all grown up in countries colonised by Britain—Zambia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and South Africa. None of us shared a mother tongue. As I began to explain where I was coming from1 on the issue of language oppression, some of the group began to realise how much they had been oppressed by language. I suggested that I counsel them all in their mother tongues—“for the hell of it,”2 I added.

There was some discharge but not a lot. However, when I asked at the end, “So what was that like?” the group exploded with laughter, questions, and feedback. After that, somehow or other,3 the issue of language oppression began to permeate the whole workshop.

I learned several things:

Some people may have been experiencing RC as duplicating the oppression they’d experienced in school when they were learning English. In some countries pupils were physically punished for speaking in their mother tongues, so even if they were now being encouraged to speak in their native languages, they were not sure if it was okay and even wondered if it was counter to the principles of RC.

English proficiency in Anglophone Africa can feel like a kind of liberation not oppression. For many it is the key to education, jobs, class mobility, and easier lifestyles. Hence people may show resistance to acknowledging being oppressed by language colonisation.

It is important for me as an ally outside the oppression to stick my neck out4 at times. The worst that can happen is that people will be angry.

As a native English speaker, it is great to have sessions with non-native English speakers, because they don’t get distracted by my fluency.

I realised why language oppression is important to me. My parents were Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe to South Africa. They had to learn English, and they struggled with it and never lost their Yiddish accents. As a child I was ashamed of their foreignness, and the cure turned out to be5 learning my mother tongue myself and witnessing how much Yiddish was valued by the Gentiles in the course.

Margaret Green

Cape Town, South Africa

(Present Time 183, April 2016)

1 “Where I was coming from” means my perspective.
2 “For the hell of it” means for no particular reason.
3 “Somehow or other” means in some unknown way.
4 “Stick my neck out” means act boldly and risk being criticized.
5 “Turned out to be” means resulted in being.

Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00