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Miss Nkosi’s revolution

Miss Nkosi was a rule breaker.

She was my Zulu language teacher in my last two years at high school, Grade 10 to matric. She was a short, stout woman with a dignified walk and a smile as rare as a solar eclipse.

For many of the students at the ‘formerly white’ model C high school I attended, Zulu class was seen as an ‘Easy A’, a ‘batting period’ where you could complete outstanding work for more serious pursuits like biology and mathematics.

Blame the curriculum. It was unimaginative, it was boring... it was basic. I mean, we were still being asked to do elementary work like label images in isiZulu – umama, ubaba, indishi - mom, dad, bowl… sigh. We also had to learn suspiciously English-sounding words masquerading as isiZulu – uJanuwari, uFebuwari, uMashi… We passed much of the time laughing at the ridiculousness of the content and reading People magazine (and Free4All).

That’s until Miss Nkosi arrived. Beneath her matronly exterior was an army drill sergeant demanding something we’d never had to give in a Zulu class before – attention. She began by outlining the course. We would have to read whole books in isiZulu, learn idioms and write 600 word essays. Yes, essays.

The honeymoon was over.

In Miss Nkosi’s Zulu class, we learned the real, actual names for the months of the year - January, February, March (uMasingana, uNhlolanja, uNdasa). We read Zulu literature – romance novels, suspense, thrillers and comedy. (These my mother would loan from me every chance she got.)

In Miss Nkosi’s mouth, isiZulu was a scholarly language – teeming with life, full of idioms and hidden and double meanings. I started having whole new conversations with my mother in my new isiZulu, like two people speaking in a secret code.

More than just language

But the value of language goes beyond the classroom and family. Language development, for example, enables business and is a driver of inclusive economic growth and careers. Language builds and maintains the relationships that drive business.

In 2018, the #Serveinmylanguage hashtag gained social media traction when south Indian banking customers expressed their discontent with bank staff’s indifference to their language barriers. It was unreasonable to expect customers to negotiate a labyrinth of terms and conditions in an unfamiliar language – how could they make financially sound choices?

Ghil’ad Zuckermann is a professor of linguistics and an expert in endangered - “sleeping beauty” - languages. He describes a link between potential mental health benefits and the reclaiming of "sleeping beauty" languages.

According to Zuckerman, "Language loss, and the consequent lack of cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty and spirituality increase the phenomena of disempowerment and mental illness.”

Language is a critical building block if we are to develop a detailed perspective of the world around us as well as a strong sense of self.

Before the end of school, I had fallen in love with isiZulu. Miss Nkosi helped me give my language depth and character by teaching me that it was a layered, rich, complex and delightful thing.

She waged a quiet revolution in a Durban classroom and taught us that indigenous languages have a real place in institutional life. They belong in places of negotiation, at dinner tables, seminars and digital forums.

Not only did she show us how to break the rules in order to improve them, she helped us gain a more meaningful education, one which fought to preserve our language and teach us its full utility. Indeed, not all heroes wear capes.

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