Friday, 7 December 2012

Volunteers Learn Xhosa with Tobz

A Short Introduction to the Xhosa Language

There are 11 official languages of South Africa and Xhosa is widely known as the second most spoken language in the country with 18% of population speaking it (that’s roughly 7.9 million people!). Xhosa is a Bantu language – the people who speak it are known as the amaXhosa and the language is known as isiXhosa. In English we call both the people and the language simply “Xhosa”.
Xhosa is a very unusual language for the Western ear – it is very tonal and consists of several different clicking sounds. And it can be extremely difficult to learn – the consonants have unusual sounds and are very close together, add in the clicks and the challenge is really on!

Here in Chintsa!

In the Eastern Cape where VA32 and our volunteer projects are situated there are roughly 5.3 million Xhosa speakers - Xhosa is the main language of the area. All local Xhosa communities that volunteers work with use Xhosa as their main language. The schools and pre-schools also teach in Xhosa but both English and Xhosa are studied in school by the older grades and generally older children (from Grade 4+) have a good command of English.

The Clicks
There are officially 15 clicks in the Xhosa language! They are spilt into 3 groups of clicks – dental clicks (when the tongue clicks against the teeth) making a “tut-tut” sound, alveolar clicks (when the tongue clicks against the palate) making a “cork popping” sound and the lateral clicks (when the tongue clicks against the side of mouth) making the sound that you would use to “gee” or call a horse.

When introducing volunteers to Xhosa we generally use these three clicking sounds as a basis to the language – it takes long enough to master these three – never mind mastering the intricate tonal differences in each group of clicks!

Watch our Xhosa lesson with Thobela and you can hear the different clicks the language uses!

The Tones
Tones are very important in the pronunciation of Xhosa words. The language uses rising and falling tones to differentiate between words – different rising and falling tone patterns of the same word can mean different things! For example “ithanga” can mean either thigh or pumpkin depending on your tonal pronunciation (better not ask for ithanga soup…just in case!).

Sometimes you will overhear a conversation in Xhosa and will hear words that you recognise. It sounds quite odd to hear such abstract sounds and a European sound in the middle! An example would be “”. This is because modern Xhosa borrows words from Afrikaans and English, for example imoto (a car), ibotile (a bottle), ileta (a letter).

A few words & phrases to get you started:

Hello - Molo (singular) / Molweni (plural)
How are you? - Kunjani (s.) / Ninjani (p.)
I’m fine, and you?  – Ndipelile kunjani wena? (s.)/ Siphelile ninjani pa (p.)
I’m fine thank you - Ndiphelile Enkosi (s.) / Siphelile Enkosi (p.)

A couple of useful classroom instructions:

Shhhh (be quiet!) – Thulani
Sit down – Hlala phantsi
Listen – Mamela
Look – Jonga
Count – Bala
Speak - thetha

Now – ngoku
Today - Namhlanje
Tomorrow - Ngomso

Everyone – Nonke

Name - iGama

Yes – Ewe
No – Hayi
Thank you  - Enkosi
Well done – Wenze Kakhule

I think it's a brilliant experience for volunteers to listen to and be engrossed in such an unusual sounding language and by the end of your stay in the Eastern Cape it's nice to be able to impress your friends back at home with some clicks and Xhosa phrases! Even saying the children’s names in school usually requires a bit of knowledge of the language for example, the name “Sipho” is said with a “p” sound in the middle and not an “f” sound as it would be in the UK, similarly with “Thulani”, the “th” is said as a “t”. The Xhosa language is very aural in origination and it’s surprising how much you can pick up just by listening to the people around you. It is also very much appreciated by local people if you at least attempt to speak some Xhosa language-  make an effort – even if you struggle with the pronunciation – it’s the effort that counts!

For a more in-depth history of the Xhosa language visit wikipedia.


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