Some reflections on learning isiZulu

It didn’t go as fast as I hoped and planned for, and certainly slower than all the other languages I learned over the years. While it is true that learning one indo-European language after another is ‘easier’ because some words and grammar rules are quite similar within each branch, and there aren’t many words in common with isiZulu (in the Nguni language group), that is not the reason why it’s going slower.

The main reason is the lack of (adult) education opportunities and the learning material. There was one course offered, which I attended, but it was cancelled after 6 weeks due to a dwindling number of participants (from 6 down to 2), and despite checking the classifieds regularly, there are no ‘isiZulu tutoring’ offers (there are for maths and other subjects) and I’m told there is a shortage of isiZulu teachers even on primary and secondary schools. So this left me the options of self-study and the get-a-boyfriend one.

A consequence of the “English is the language of business” agreement for post-Apartheid South Africa is that now most South Africans learn and can speak English (yeah, what the Afrikaners couldn’t achieve by some awful law back in 1976 [that Afrikaans be the medium of instruction at all schools and everyone thus learns to speak Afrikaans], the English language mother/native tongue/home language speakers achieved by other means). So the get-a-boyfriend option doesn’t really work for learning the language, at least not to the same extent as in other countries.

I will focus on the self-study and learning material in the remainder of this post. Now, I am fairly disciplined in study habits, but as my fellow researchers can attest, being an academic is more than a 9-5 job, and conference paper deadlines, attending conferences, and additional teaching duties get in the way of keeping up with it. Perhaps some consider this a lame excuse, but the following one holds generally: one easily can get the pronunciation wrong if not corrected by a mother tongue speaker (some accent is always better than a distorted pronunciation), the lack of practice in conversation, the absence of inside knowledge to which of the newspapers to buy to decipher (i.e., which one has simplistic sentences vs. high-brow complicated sentences and larger vocabulary), and so on.

And then, the textbooks! I had bought one on the internet while still in Italy, as preparation before moving to South Africa: Teach yourself Zulu, which I wasn’t quite happy with, and, in hindsight, perhaps I could have guessed that, because I didn’t like the ‘Italian for English speakers’ either when I bought that one when I first went to Italy in 2004. Trying two others from here, it just got worse. I think the main problem is the lack of structure, as they are all terribly disorganized when it comes to grammar. I’m probably experiencing the same emotions as Carsten Graebler (a German exchange student who developed an online dictionary and a grammar cheat sheet because there was none and he needed one in his attempts to learn isiZulu).

Let me give an example. When personal pronouns come into play, it gives a list of examples in the ‘order’ of I, he, they, you, she, or as I, we, you, you, that have so-called “concords” with the verb. Anywhere else, the latter is called with its proper linguistic term conjugation, and in the order of I, you[singular], he/she/it, we, you[plural], they, with a corresponding list how to conjugate the verb. In roman languages, they are at the end of the stem, in isiZulu, at the start, so we have ngi-, u-, u-, si-, ni-, ba-; e.g.: ngithanda = I like, sifunda = we study and so on. They are just lists one has to memorize for the pronouns and nouns. Then, like in the roman languages, because the verb in the sentence already indicates who or what it is about, one can drop the subject (personal pronoun/thing) in the sentence. With a language that doesn’t have such heavy conjugations, you have to include it. (As an aside: the conjugation maps to the subject, not subject+pronoun, so, teachers, don’t include the latter nonsense in the textbooks and don’t teach Zulus a ‘translating the isiZulu’ in the ‘sort of English but the wrong way’ (and then spit on them for using it the wrong way)! I cannot recollect any of the Italians or Spanish make the same mistake when they speak in English, so that’s really due to bad teaching here.)

And, please, make an index of the grammar rules. Now, when I want to check how again, e.g., future tense is, I have to browse through the book, where the grammar is presented piecemeal in a fairly random come-along way that suits the mini-conversations of the chapter’s topic rather than a whole rule together in one place.

There are two related hypotheses about the lack of structure, like I’ve seen also in the English ‘teach yourself Italian’ textbook. One: it is due to the relatively simple grammar of English compared to the complex grammar of multiple other languages, so if one knows only English, it is harder to handle structure, glean from others ways how to structure things, or even think about looking for structure in another natural language. Two, with a grammatically simpler language, the onus is on the receiver of the message to decode the message in a way that is hopefully what the sender intended, whereas with grammatically richer languages, the onus is on the sender to encode correctly what s/he wants to say so that the receiver can understand precisely what the sender really meant. Like having more and less expressive ontology languages (e.g., using OWL 2 DL and SKOS, respectively), where the former allows the modeler to be more precise and the latter retains lots of ambiguity that easily can be misinterpreted by another modeler or software application. I don’t know whether anyone investigated this for natural languages, and to what extent that has an effect on conducting a conversation and learning and teaching a language.

Then there are the topics. In one isiZulu textbook, the topic of the first chapter is greetings, the second is on giving short commands (wait, listen, come here, do it, fill up, make tea!). Or a course structured so as to “teach you isiZulu so that you can instruct your domestic and gardener what to do”: no, I want to use it in everyday life and work (I don’t have a domestic, and not even a garden), like congratulating someone on his birthday, understand when they ask me where the registration office is and answer it, ask for the AV key to use the data projector in the lecture hall, and even better would be to be able to explain some computer science in isiZulu and give a compliment for a test well done. The Teach yourself Zulu textbook is at least somewhat better in this regard, as it handles early on also topics like celebrations, going to the supermarket and buying food, going for a drink, and asking someone for something instead of instructing the worker.

Last, I want to learn isiZulu, the language, not be indoctrinated in racist crap that “isiZulu is a new language; it only became one in 1905, when the colonists an missionaries started to write it down…before that, there were only many mutually incomprehensible dialects but no language…really, Afrikaans was a language before isiZulu” and that “yes, that’s what they [the Zulus] have, short little stories; they don’t have comprehensive histories like we have in the West”, to quote but two. And not to have illustrated the use of iyi– only with indoda iyisela (the man is a thief), whereas it just as well could have been illustrated with, if I understand the unexplained rule correctly, indoda iyinono (the man is a careful/tidy person).

So, overall, I haven’t managed to go beyond the very basics. Each university I’ve been before UKZN had a language centre, where students and employees could sign up for evening courses in multiple languages. It would help to have that here, too. Or the civic centre or community school/college could organize such courses. True, there’s a shortage of teachers, but there’s also a 29% unemployment rate in the country—surely some of them are capable of becoming isiZulu teachers. And teachers and teaching material could upgrade themselves with the latest tools (like the isiZulu spell checker, online dictionaries and conjugator), update the textbooks material to make it suitable for the 21st century, and add some decent grammar compendium. In the meantime, I probably have to contend myself with flicking through the material trying to remember it all and with entertaining myself with some curiosities in the dictionaries.