South Africa has 11 national languages. Many other YAGM programs around the world start with language training. However, South Africa can’t do that as a group, because we are learning different languages. Between the 10 placement sites this year, there were 7 languages that were used daily. This means that I arrived in Cape Town, in a Coloured community that is primarily Afrikaans-speaking, knowing how to say “thank you,” but nothing else.

The language Afrikaans has a complex history. It developed in the 18th century as Dutch settlers had to communicate with other inhabitants of Southern Africa, including their slaves. It is largely comprised of Dutch, but has bits and pieces of Khoisan, Portuguese, Xhosa, and languages from Southeast Asia and Southern Africa.

It is also the cause of a lot of controversy. Afrikaans is the mother-tongue of the Afrikaaner people, and it was a group of Afrikaaner people who developed the governmental structure of apartheid. The Afrikaaner people are often credited as being the “architects of apartheid” and Afrikaans as the “language of oppression.” In fact, the Soweto Student Uprisings of 1976, often credited as the beginning of the end of apartheid, started due to the students’ frustration at being taught in Afrikaans.

While that is the history of the language nationally, in my community, it is different. The coloured community is majority Afrikaans-speaking, but it is not the same Afrikaans spoken by the Afrikaaner people. In much of the Western Cape, Afrikaans and English are mixed together in a blend of language and dialect. Some things are said only in English, and other things are said only in Afrikaans. Some sentences it’s common to mix the two together. Words are even pronounced differently.

I have lived among the coloured community for nearly 11 months, and yet I am nowhere near fluent or even conversational in Afrikaans. I can understand most of the simple sentences spoken around me, and my church-related vocabulary isn’t too bad, but I still often have to ask for clarification in English. I can speak some simple sentences, but my friends always laugh and tell me I speak Afrikaans with a German accent (how that is possible I just don’t know).

The thing is, though, the Afrikaans I have learned is the bilingual mix of my community. It is beautiful, and I adore hearing it spoken. But it is unexpected for many people to encounter a white person who speaks this dialect of Afrikaans. Often, when I am in other parts of the city or country, a person will approach me speaking Afrikaans. I will realize, with a shock, that I can’t understand anything they say because their accent and way of speaking is so different. I have even seen looks of shock and anger on the faces of people when I speak “improper” Afrikaans.

Sometimes, when I travel to other YAGMs, I get a whole different reaction. For example, when I was able to visit Soweto, I would tell people I was learning Afrikaans and some would respond with anger that I would learn the “language of oppression.” I felt the need to defend my community, to speak up for their use of Afrikaans, and to explain that it was not just the language used to write apartheid laws.

It is the language with which I greet my students, with which they call out to me on the street as I pass by.

It is the language my supervisor uses when she speaks to her husband about their work trying to make life better in my community.

It is the language in which I have learned The Lord’s Prayer, in which I have heard hymns and the Lutheran liturgy for the last year.

It is the language I helped my host siblings practice spelling words for, the language with which I am greeted as I pass my neighbors, the language spoken when I watch soccer in the hostel, the language with which people say “How are you,” “Sleep well,” “I love you,” and “I will miss you.”

Afrikaans is not my mother tongue, but it is the tongue of my mothers in Cape Town, and I feel so blessed that I was able to spend a year struggling to learn bits and pieces of a bilingual and imperfect dialect of such a meaningful language.