IN LITERACY development circles, I once heard a story about two preschoolers who were asked, in English, what language they spoke at home. The first child, who was black, answered "isiXhosa". The second child, a white English-speaker, responded by asking: "What’s a language?"
There are so many lessons and ironies in this story, given the hegemony of the English language and its association with educational excellence and bourgeoisie’s social airs in South African society.
But the story is unlikely to make much of an impression on many of my black colleagues, who prefer to send their children to exclusively English-language preschools from as early as possible. Even here at Rhodes University, enough black parents demand that our daycare ensure that their toddlers become fluent in the kind of suburban English that will put them at an advantage when they start applying for limited space in good schools.
This strategy is understandable. What is worrying is that many of these black parents seem to be resigned to the fact that access to good schools requires that their children speak English, not just as a language but also as a "culture". The requirements are for that kind of English that comes through the nose; enunciated with the suburban intonations.
The debate has raged on among black South Africans about whether this "hoity-toity" English is a problem and whether ridiculing black people who speak this way by labelling them "coconuts" and "Model Cs" is a form of narrowing the idea of what it means to be "black". While I can agree that labels and bullying are wrong, I do think there is a need for black South Africans who use suburban English to resist the pressure on our children to conform and assimilate into this Anglo-Saxonism.
A few months ago, I was on an education discussion panel with Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib, who argued that language, specifically mother-tongue instruction, was increasingly being deployed as part of antitransformation strategies in historically Afrikaans universities. Language, Habib argued, was being used as a proxy for "race".
The debate has raged on among black South Africans about whether this "hoity-toity" English is a problem and whether ridiculing black people who speak this way by labelling them "coconuts" and "Model Cs" is a form of narrowing the idea of what it means to be "black".
We have become quite accustomed to the use of this strategy by conservative Afrikaans institutions but the same seems to be happening in some better resourced historically English-medium schools.
One increasingly hears of schools saying they have a policy of preferring English mother tongue speakers. It is difficult to prove or pin down that there is a discriminatory element to this except for the suspicion that this refers to "white children" because there has never before been a marking of English as a "mother tongue" in SA.
The problem for black parents here is that they have the burden of ensuring that their child can pass as a "mother tongue" speaker. To do this means that one has to send one’s child to all the right feeder preschools, which, like the parents who use Rhodes daycare, will ensure that they impress the school when they get to the interviewing stage.
It is at this point that those children who have the airs and graces mimicked from their white counterparts come to be favoured over those who may be little less proficient in English and have the wrong "accent". Ever perceptive, our children know what kind of performance gets approval in Anglo-Saxon spaces; they know that to be acceptable in some of these schools is to "act a little bit less black". The other side of this approval-seeking behaviour is that we continue to engender internal insecurity in children who do not speak English at home.
If I return to the story of the two preschoolers, the real warning here is that the history of English monolingualism coupled with its cultural dominance has tended to produce parochial, somewhat insulated people. We have had about 20 years of this pattern of cultural assimilation in suburban schools.
Is it any surprise that so many black children coming out of this kind of education system tend to be able to speak only English? Is this really what we should be aspiring to? To remedy this, we must insist on all our schools providing quality African language instruction, for all children.