Saturday 1 June 2013

learning the local language #expatlife

There are many benefits to learning the local language of the country you live in. Not only is it rude (in my opinion) not to, it can save a lot of time and difficulties for both you and your family and your host country.

But I live in South Africa; people mainly speak in English, esp. when they see the glazed expression on my face. But I’ve mastered simple greetings and I understand an awful lot more than I can speak. I often respond to a conversation in English and they pick up on my accent and reply in English. For example this is usually situational, I enter a shop, and I assume they say ‘can I help you?’

My biggest pet hate about living in South Africa is that people here will apologise for assuming I speak Afrikaans and say ‘sorry’ when I tell them ‘I only speak English’. You see there are 11 official languages spoken here. But only 5% of the population has English as their 'home' language.

Almost everyone I have met speaks a minimum of 2 languages, their ‘home’ language and English, but some people speak 4 or 5 or even more languages.

You also never know what language is going to be spoken to you. Most people have maids and nannies, from far afield, not only in South Africa but neighbouring countries also. Children learn to speak their home language, they must Matric School in Afrikaans, they need to learn English in schools, and they learn the maids/nannies language also.

I've started to identify the different languages spoken and with that can identify where people come from. In the UK people have definite accents that lets you know where they are from. In South Africa the only accents I can hear are with the Afrikaans and the difference between Cape Town and Jo'burg. There is also a definite class differentiation in Afrikkans, where the first let of each word is over emphasised and drawn out.

I always speak in English, I have a few key words I can use when volunteering and most people are keen to teach me. I find that most of the time when I reply to someone in English that they've actually spoken to me in Afrikaans. So I'm getting there, slower than I had hoped for, as the main language heard daily is English, the music is in English, the street signs are in English and there are 10 other languages spoken all around me every day.......where would you begin?


Any idea where I start?


  1. With your mindset. You've already begun, you're already learning words and expressions.

    Since most people seem to speak Afrikaans in addition to English (and their other languages), I'd focus on that. Learn the alphabet, how to count at least to one hundred, days of the week, months of the year and key expressions used in daily life. When I moved here to the Netherlands, I really gave some thought to the 50 most common phrases and words I used on a daily basis. The most useful phrase (after please and thank you) is 'How do you say X in Dutch?' - Hoe zegt je X en Nederlands? Good luck!

    1. Where I volunteer a lot of Zulu is spoken so I learn key words and phrases in that and Afrikaans