Video Blog: The Many, Many, Many Languages of South Africa

4 July 2011 at 00:48 2 comments

by Daniel Jung, KF15, South Africa

One of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, South Africa has 11 official languages recognized in its constitution and many more ethnic dialects not officially recognized but commonly spoken. Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans (Boer) are the three most widely spoken languages, collectively the native tongues for over half  of South Africa. Even though English is the most commonly used language throughout South Africa, particularly within the media and government, only about 8 percent of South Africans speak English as a first language. Generally, English is used as a language of last resort between ethnic groups that are not intelligible when speaking to each other. Lucky for me, almost all South Africans speak enough English for basic communication.

I am currently based in Richards Bay on the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, where Zulus comprise the strong majority of the population. This doesn’t mean that Zulu is the only language spoken. At the regional office of Kiva’s partner in South Africa, Women’s Development Businesses (WDB) , four different languages are regularly used. To try to keep everything straight, I compiled a handy chart of common phrases in these four languages. Unfortunately, this chart is really difficult to write on my hand.

English Zulu Setswana Tsonga
Hello Sawu Bana Dumelang Kunjhani
Thank you Ngi Bonga Kealeboga Inkomu
Yes Yebo Ke dumalana le wema Ina
No Cha Nyaa Ee
Sorry Ngi yalisa Ke kopa tshwarelo Ndzi Khomele
Good bye Salekahle Salang Sentle Salani Kahle

It is difficult to capture the various phonetics and pronunciations of each language with English letters, particularly the clicks of Zulu, so I’ve recorded some videos of different staff members at WDB pronouncing each word in the table above. Try to follow along.

Here’s Kiva Coordinator Gnile pronouncing each word in Zulu. Notice how the “ch” in the word “cha” is actually a click:

Now Senior Adminstrator Onica pronouncing each word in Setswana:

And lastly, Regional Manager Eric pronouncing each word in Tsonga:

After taking these videos I noticed the difficulty that Onica and Eric had in remembering words in their native languages. Formal dialect in tribal languages is hardly ever used, so words are often forgotten, particularly when living in a region where one’s native language is not commonly spoken. Both Eric and Onica come from northern regions and moved to KwaZulu-Natal for their work with WDB.   Within less than a year, they both learned enough Zulu to effectively communicate with clients and co-workers, seemingly at the expense of their native languages. (Not seen on this video is Onica calling her friend to remember the proper way to say “yes” in Setswana). Also, certain words and phrases from English and other dialects often are intermixed to simplify communication, sometimes to the point where common usage of these words and phrases overtakes that of the original.

For more information on the different languages and phrases in South Africa, check out this website. For a visual representation of the dominant languages in the different regions of South Africa, take a look at this map. Salekahle!




Daniel Jung is a member of KF15 and works with Women’s Development Businesses (WDB) in Richards Bay, South Africa. For more information about WDB, check out its website. Also, join the WDB Kiva lending team here.

Previous posts by Daniel Jung:

Zulu Weddings

Entry filed under: Africa, KF15 (Kiva Fellows 15th Class), South Africa, Womens Development Businesses (WDB). Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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  • […] Video Blog: The Many, Many, Many Languages of South Africa Country: South Africa / Fellow: Daniel Jung (KF15) Daniel teaches us a few words in three of the most widely spoken languages of South Africa, an ethically diverse country with no less than eleven official languages. […]

  • 2. Megan Bond  |  4 July 2011 at 08:37

    Awesome, Daniel! Thanks for a really interesting insight into the many, many, many languages & cultures of South Africa.

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