Keeping count: secret complexities of a monolingual

On my relationship with English, my mother tongue, in South Africa.

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I have always loved to count. When I was little, I counted my steps. At age ten, I counted the lamp posts on the drive to school, or cars that sped past. Around age twelve, I began counting letters and syllables in groups of seven. I loved the rhythm of a count of seven; it sounded self-assured, complete. Simultaneously, my eyes spied out seven-letter words, which I’d then tap out onto my lap as if typing on a keyboard.

In retrospect, this behaviour was compulsive, and it certainly slackened the pace of my reading. Often, I was so engrossed in counting and listening to the words in my head that I missed what they were trying to tell me, but I learnt to appreciate words in a new way. I valued the sounds – the taps and hums and ticks – of the English language. I still search for seven-letter words in books, sprayed onto walls, carved into desks. There is solace in these sevens; my mind tenses and then relaxes with each search and discovery. It is a comfort, just as it is a comfort to speak in the language that one knows and loves the most.

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In 2016, my second year at university, I took a beginner’s isiXhosa class as part of my journalism course. Upon sharing with us his intricate linguistic background, one lecturer declared that monolingualism was a disease. I shrunk down in my seat. Was I infected? Had my upbringing led me to glorify English rather than to challenge it and seek communication and understanding through other tongues? The written word is my saviour – for years I’ve pored over text of various kinds, savouring every letter. Writing is my preferred way of speaking, so my mother’s shock at my newfound disdain for English was expected. My relationship with my mother tongue is, after all, linked to my relationship with my mother.

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Message. Balloon. Coconut. Triumph. Declare. Playful. Empathy. Younger.

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Writer Yiyun Li has said, “one’s thoughts are slavishly bound to language.” I think of the word slavishly, the hiss of the first s and the slurry of the sh mixed with the l. It drags and tilts, and the relationship between language and one’s thoughts becomes an unequal and undesirable one. My roommate is fluent in several South African languages but English is our only means of communication, as it’s the only one I know. I live in South Africa. I study at a university in the Eastern Cape. Most of my friends  here are multilingual. Yet the only language sitting comfortably on my tongue is English. I cannot put the blame solely on the language, nor on myself, though neither of us is innocent. I adore my mother tongue, but this love is not linear; I reassess it, I question it, and I step back in apprehension.

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Bloated. Defiant. Disturb. Hurtful. Trouble. Clarity. Selfish. Chained.

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In Psychology 1 we studied how the human brain interprets language and develops communication skills. Turning away from his notes, our lecturer questioned the value of “perfect English”. If people can understand one another through language, why dwell on the dips and dents in their speech or writing? Why criticise a person’s language skills if you can understand them, if the flaws are present but do not take away from the meaning of the words?

Amy Tan writes about her mother’s Chinese English which, to Amy, is “perfectly clear, perfectly natural.” It is her mother tongue, though it is miles from the South African English that has raised me. Amy Tan used to think that her mother’s English was “broken”, but it was so much more than that. It was the way in which she voiced her thoughts, and expressing oneself imperfectly is not a sign of flawed thinking. I once believed that there was only one English, rather than many Englishes. Each kind holds a history that attaches itself to the words that stream from the mouth and pen. Amy’s mother’s English is far different from mine. It has another personality, creating diverse patterns and spacing on the page. It manifests through different movements of mouth and tone, arising from a past with secrets foreign to my tongue. There are countless languages, but there is an infinite amount of Englishes which, during the first two decades of my life, I unconsciously overlooked.

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Letters have always appeared to me as people. They have assigned genders, personalities, and facial expressions. I see the same in numbers, but letters appear more overt in character (counting in sevens is the only fluency I have in the language of maths). B’s booming charisma makes others laugh, but he can shift to become surprisingly solemn. W is feathery-voiced, androgynous, and frustratingly forgetful. O, astonished by everything, is tall and bold with long arms waiting to embrace you. L rubs people the wrong way and he doesn’t care.

This is a form of synaesthesia, known as Ordinal Linguistic Personification. I never acknowledged it when I was younger because it was a part of my everyday life, just as you wouldn’t continually question your body’s motor senses every time you turned left or right. It complicates further when colours and words are involved. Friday is indubitably yellow. Monday is a rusty red.

This is the secret, analytical side to my relationship with English. Through the counting and the OLP, the written word becomes a beautiful expanse of patterns and feelings that I will forever hold onto, despite my disagreements with English.  

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My mother calls me skattie. Afrikaans is not familiar on our tongues, yet I am her skattie, a term whose impact comes not only from the translation, but from the way it is formed, from the sounds within the word. Skat means treasure, and skattie is the diminutive form – little treasure. The tick of the k and the tentative tie make it sound sweet, innocuous. The words you think and share are yours, but they stem from the places surrounding you. On the phone to her mother, my roommate says, Ke nale Guin, and just like that, through the presence of my name, I’ve learnt a fragment of Sepedi: I am with Guin.

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Crimson. Ravioli. English. Hopeful. Thlemma. Visible. Skattie. Delight.

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The words I hold closest will always be English ones. There is, however, room for other shapes and sounds and complexities from languages, ones I chose to view from afar, who now await me. I’ll never desert the little kid who cherishes those seven-letter gems, and who quietly observes the peculiarities and colours of letters and words. To leave her counting and exploring through the hazy lens of a monolingual would be a great disservice.

Header image: Guinevere Shapiro

One thought on “Keeping count: secret complexities of a monolingual

  1. Pingback: The secret complexities of a blog post | A Normal Affliction

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