SMOKE: Gift Of The Gab

Originally published: 12 August 2005

I was doing my regular papal research (I have to keep tabs on Joe Ratzinberger, just to make sure he's rigorously tracking down sexually abusive clergymen, chucking about women's rights like confetti and doling out condoms by the tin pail) and I read the list of languages he speaks:

German, Italian, French, Latin, Spanish and English. Six.

Not bad, although he's an amateur compared to his predecessor, JP II, who gave his 2004 Christmas address in 62 languages.

I've always thought that's one of the really cool things about being the Pope - you get all multilingual and shit. Or is it just coincidence that each and every one of the popes speaks at least six languages? Course not - it's a job perk.

I've always been impressed by multilingual people, simply because I don't understand how it's possible to speak a lot of languages. What about conjugations, man, and possessive pronouns? How the hell do you get past all that?

I was quite a talented linguist as a youngster, actually, and had I received decent, exciting tuition I'm sure I could have learned the big five, like Big Joe (Latin doesn't count, since only one or two men of the cloth still speak it).

Naturally I had to learn Afrikaans, since it was compulsory, but I would have loved to have learned other languages. I studied Latin right through until completion of school but the only thing I got out of five years of hell was the following poem, which I scripted one bored day:

Amo, amas, amant,
Bellum, bellum, belli,
Amamus, amatis, amant,
Omnibus chasing me.

No wonder they hated me at school.

Conjugations of the verb, dude - it sucks a lot of ass. A lot.

I also had a shot at learning SeSotho (when I lived in Pretoria) and Xhosa (in my first years in Cape Town), but both were complete abortions.

The first was when my sister and I went to the appalling Waldorf School for one term (in the Transvaal in those days there were three school terms, as opposed to four these days, which meant that was a very long summer I spent at that horrendous farm school).

There were only 12 kids in my class and SeSotho was compulsory for all of us.

The teacher was an enormous Mama - the sort you really don't need to be climbing into the taxi and slotting into the only available space, your lap - and she had a rather crude method for teaching the language.

We would stand in a circle with her outside, next to the chicken coop, and we would march around in the circle, chanting phrases and words over and over and over again.

This chick seriously didn't believe in anything other than ritual and rote as a means of education, and unfortunately she could hardly speak a word of English, which naturally didn't help.

Especially seeing as Afrikaans was almost exclusively spoken at the school - my sister and I were the only two English kids there.

We never knew what any of the phrases we were chanting meant, and when kids don't know what they're doing they get bored - smart quick.

Most of the kids at that school came from families who were perfectly happy to perpetuate Apartheid and that poor teacher had no chance. There were constant muttered racial slurs and jokes when she was teaching and one day it all got too much for her.

I happened to be involved. Of course.

I can't remember what happened, but the boy next to me whispered something and I laughed. I'd picked up on the general air of disrespect for the teacher without really knowing or understanding why and it was a big mistake because it was the straw that broke the camel's back.

We were still snickering when I became aware that the sun had disappeared and it was distinctly cold, and looking up I saw the Mama towering above me, her face boiling with rage and no doubt a fair amount of hatred.

Before the other boy or I could begin to fathom what was going on her huge arms extended out from her body and so fast that I didn't even see it happen, she brought her arms together at violent speed and smashed our skulls together.

One moment I was standing there; the next I was sitting in the dust, completely concussed. I had no idea what was going on and I remember foolishly trying to find my way to my feet, and failing.

She stormed off, leaving us there in the dirt where we no doubt belonged, and I never saw her again after that. I think she just walked out and never came back.

I certainly never had another SeSotho class again, and when we left the school after that long term - and I returned to Christian Brother's College - I never attempted the language again.

Then - when I moved to Cape Town - I started high school, and we had the option of doing a Life Skills class. These classes were things like extra woodwork, domestic science (i.e. learning how to take care of your man when he comes home from a long day at work) and languages - including Xhosa.

But their fatal mistake was in the planning, because instead of getting in a Xhosa-speaking teacher (which they weren't allowed to do, since black staff couldn't be employed) the task fell to our normal class teacher - a white woman who had never spoken a word of Xhosa in her life.

The first class was a disaster - even us eighth-graders were aware that she had no clue what she was doing, and we could spot the irony of the whole situation.

She started the second class but only lasted about five minutes before she muttered some excuse and left the room. She never came back either.

We sat there for the rest of that class, and arrived and sat through a teacher-less third class, in which I suffered the humiliating experience of arm-wrestling a girl and getting beaten by her (give me a break here - I was The Stick Kid and she was the Behemoth From Hell).

But not a stitch of Xhosa did I learn, and shortly after that the whole programme was called off as it was an unmitigated disaster.

I really regret that both of those learning opportunities passed me by, because as I've got older I've felt less and less inclined to want to learn new languages. It just seems impossible now, and I can't fathom how I ever learned any language other than English at all.

They say if you immerse yourself in a culture you will learn the language really quickly, but I've always been skeptical of that. I've been living in Cape Town for 20 years now and the best Xhosa I can manage is my standard greeting at the local QuickShop: "Molo" for one, "Molweni" for many - my query "Kunjani?"; a "Hayi - ndisaphila, nkosi" when asked about my state of health, and of course the national anthem, which I am thankful to SuperSport for assisting me with (Nkosi Karaoke, I call it, and it works).

An extra language would be so cool, and six - like Cardinal Joe - would be a total blast. Now that's the gift of the gab.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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