Success with Foreign Languages

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By Chief Ankama

(With reference to E. Stevick 1989).

As I grew up, I had a question that I have been unable to answer, and this is how my uncle Tshiya acquired to speak English even though he does not know how to read and write at all.

In fact, he speaks two foreign languages English and Afrikaans fairly well enough for communication. He worked at Consolidated Diamond Mines – Oranjemund (Namdeb) – and is now retired.

I mirrored myself into uncle Tshiya’s language acquisition. What follows here is my experience in view of uncle Tshiya’s styles.

Oshiwambo for me is arguably one group language, even if it is subdivided into eight languages including my mother tongue Otshikwambi.

I can speak all of these fairly well. But I can also speak other Namibian languages moderately well, these are Otjiherero, Afrikaans and a bit of German and Portuguese and then English, a foreign language which became Namibia’s official language and medium of instruction in schools in 1993.

In the first instance I regard myself a language fan because I simply enjoy playing about with languages I hear. In my neighbourhood of the countryside where I was born people speak Otshikwambi.

Even at my primary school which was run by the Catholic Church I was exposed to Otshikwambi books for at least three years. Oshindonga and Oshikwanyama are widely published, offer a lot of reading materials and these were the two languages introduced in state schools (during the colonial time) to cater for the eight Oshiwambo speakers.

The former Owambo and now northern Namibia, distinguishable by the regions of Omusati, Oshana, Ohangwena and Oshikoto, is habitat for more than half of Namibia’s population.

And with the exception of Oshindonga, Oshikwanyama and Otshikwambi languages which are written, others like Otshingandjera, Otshikwaluudhi, Otshikolonkadhi, Oshimbaanhu and Oshimbadja are equally spoken throughout the region and beyond.

Otjiherero is spoken outside the region I was born, while Portuguese is spoken mainly by people fof Angolan origin – Angola is a former Portuguese colony which borders Namibia on the north.

Namibia is a former Germany colony and many Catholic priests are Germans and as such it is spoken in Namibia but Catholic schools also used to teach German as a subject. Afrikaans is traditionally a language of the white Afrikaners in South Africa.

Since Namibia was colonized by Afrikaners, Afrikaans was imposed and eventually turned to be one of Namibia’s local languages. While Afrikaans had been medium of education before independence in 1990, it was also highly enforced and non-Afrikaans speakers could take it in school as first or second language which I did at both levels.

English on the other hand became famous as a language of the better educated and I like many other people was motivated to want to speak it.

Although highly discouraged during the colonial time, in school it was taught as a third or foreign language.

Apart from general exposure, speaking new languages has been my hobby. As far as I am concerned it is not a matter of being intelligent, it is rather a combination of interests.

I acquired languages by exposure to so many languages and by formal learning as part of my school requirements.

Almost like uncle Tshiya who can speak Afrikaans and English while he cannot read and write, for Portuguese and German I cannot read or write. I realized that when I attempted to read I could not connect the written form to the spoken one.

Personal Profile

I regard language learning as complex and indeed difficult to explain. Amongst others, language learning involves remembrance, sound reproduction and context for practice.

While I see myself closer to a baby acquiring a mother tongue, I use my ears more, and happen to be good at making sounds I have heard about the new language, not bothered very much about spelling but somehow careful of how I apply the new words or the structure of the language, particularly in formal language learning.

I can almost tell with accuracy a variety of languages and accents by listening over the radio or when someone is speaking next door. At the same time I developed intuitively how to emulate ethnic distinct or individual pronunciations in all languages I can speak, e.g. a German speaking English, Afrikaner, Oshikwanyama speaking person, an Indian or French English speaker.

In other words I can almost tell with perfection whether the person speaking English even behind a wall is French, Oshikwanyama, Indian and so forth.

Stevick discusses about the Language Acquisition Device – LAD – possibly consisting of two properties: the first that deals with the process of verbal and non-verbal input-receptivity, and the second which is concerned with the organization and ingraining of received data into some kind of order within our minds.

In this way one is able to acquire a language in a unique fashion just like I did. Apart from my mother tongue, Oshindonga, Oshikwanyama, Afrikaans and English which I had a chance to learn from school, the rest were informally acquired. There was no teacher involved. It is as a result of taking in the sounds as heard from target language speakers.

Most high schools in Owambo have hostels and because of learners from different language (local) backgrounds one had an ample choice to pick up as many (local) languages as one heard.

I had quite a substantial number of friends from these diverse language backgrounds during my secondary school and teachers??????’??

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