Par­ent­ing – ‘My kid can’t speak vernac’

In a mul­ti­lin­gual so­ci­ety, English is of­ten the uni­fy­ing lan­guage at the ex­pense of the ver­nac­u­lar of our coun­try. Here’s how to en­cour­age your child to speak and love their mother tongue.


It’s a big fam­ily gath­er­ing and ev­ery­one is present – aunts, un­cles, grand­par­ents and, of course, your sib­lings are there with their lit­tle ones. Your grand­mother sum­mons your son and says, “Mtanami, hamba uyothenga ushukela es­paza” (My child, please go to the spaza shop and buy sugar). Your child looks puz­zled. Your heart starts beat­ing fu­ri­ously and ut­ter dread comes over you as you wait for your child to open his month. And there he goes: “Gogo, I don’t un­der­stand what you just said.” Ev­ery­one in the room stops, as if a pause but­ton has been pressed. You could hear a pin drop. Then your loud and an­noy­ing aunt chimes in, “Uyaba bona la­bant­wana be­silungu. Ni­mosha abant­wana nina” (You see these English kids, you guys are dam­ag­ing chil­dren). What was sup­posed to be a happy oc­ca­sion has turned into a night­mare. You scurry around, keep­ing su­per-busy to avoid go­ing deeper into the con­ver­sa­tion. As the par­ent, you’re bat­tling feel­ings of em­bar­rass­ment, frus­tra­tion and in­ad­e­quacy.

Don’t feel too bad. What par­ents need to un­der­stand is that chil­dren will use any lan­guage they know to com­mu­ni­cate their needs. Chil­dren who at­tend an English-medium school bat­tle even more with bilin­gual­ism as most of the time at school and around peers, English is the uni­fy­ing lan­guage. At the same time, though, if you feel strongly about your child’s abil­ity to speak their mother tongue, cul­tural ex­pert Dr No­magugu Ngobese en­cour­ages fam­i­lies and young chil­dren to learn their na­tive lan­guage in a fun, en­gag­ing and mem­o­rable way, from an early age. She says chil­dren are able to grasp lan­guages eas­ily and quickly. “It be­gins with telling your chil­dren how to hold up their hands when ask­ing for some­thing po­litely, and in your na­tive lan­guage. That way, they learn their lan­guage and how to ad­dress their el­ders.”

Teach­ing chil­dren their mother tongue from the get-go will help kick­start their school ca­reer. “Chil­dren who go to school with a solid foun­da­tion of their mother tongue de­velop lit­er­acy abil­i­ties in the lan­guage of in­struc­tion at school,” says Dr Than­deka Ndalo, a speech lan­guage pathol­o­gist.

So how do you en­cour­age your child to be more com­fort­able with his home lan­guage? Here’s how:


Chil­dren must be able to func­tion and com­mu­ni­cate ef­fec­tively in their homes be­fore they can do so out in the com­mu­nity, so the na­tive lan­guage can­not be stripped away, says Themba Qwabe, au­thor of IsiZulu chil­dren’s books. That also ap­plies to chil­dren with lan­guage de­lays. And par­ents should play a cru­cial role in pro­mot­ing lit­er­a­ture in our Nguni lan­guages, by buy­ing books and read­ing to our kids. There should be tele­vi­sion time and read­ing time, he adds.

“We must en­cour­age our kids to read and al­low them to nar­rate sto­ries to us,” Qwabe ad­vises. “It’s the re­spon­si­bil­ity of par­ents to feed the minds of kids; li­braries should also have these books. It would be more help­ful if the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion en­sured these books are at pri­mary schools and train teach­ers how to teach lit­er­a­ture at a pri­mary level,” he added.


Al­though it’s tempt­ing, avoid laugh­ing or mak­ing fun of your child when they at­tempt to speak vernac. Gen­tly coach them and en­cour­age them. Anele Nkosi, 29, says she grew up speak­ing

English at home and al­though she had a ba­sic grasp of isiXhosa and was able to un­der­stand what peo­ple said, she was os­tracised by other black chil­dren.

“Be­cause I spoke isiXhosa with an English ac­cent and would place the em­pha­sis at the wrong place, I was teased end­lessly at school.” Be­cause she was not com­fort­able speak­ing the lan­guage, Anele even­tu­ally stopped al­to­gether. She wishes her par­ents had spo­ken their mother tongue at home be­cause her school ex­pe­ri­ence could’ve been less trau­matic. “Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so dis­con­nected from other black chil­dren, who thought I be­lieved I was bet­ter than them.”


If you con­sis­tently stick to speak­ing your na­tive lan­guage with your chil­dren, they’ll be less likely to switch to English with you, even when it be­comes their main lan­guage at nurs­ery or school, says Rita Nkoane, a mother of two bilin­gual boys.

“Noth­ing is as mo­ti­vat­ing as the need to speak a lan­guage. With­out co­er­cion, come up with sit­u­a­tions where your chil­dren will want to com­mu­ni­cate with mono­lin­guals in the mi­nor­ity lan­guage. Think of play dates, calls to uGogo, sports and other ac­tiv­i­ties in your na­tive lan­guage,” she sug­gests.


Re­peat their state­ments back to them with the cor­rect pro­nun­ci­a­tion or word us­age but don’t over-cor­rect. “Chil­dren get dis­cour­aged when they try some­thing and you al­ways shoot them down with corrections. Give your child lots of praise for his ef­forts,” Dr Ngobese ex­plains.


Chil­dren re­spond well to ageap­pro­pri­ate in­cen­tives. Your fiveyear-old will love get­ting a smil­ing sun sticker on the wall chart, but fig­ure out some­thing dif­fer­ent for your teenager. “I think it’s okay to bribe some­times to get them to speak your home lan­guage. But use bribes spar­ingly and save them for cru­cial sit­u­a­tions when your chil­dren show ten­den­cies to drop the mi­nor­ity lan­guage.” Nkoane adds. It takes time but you’ll get there.

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