Multilingualism is a result of contextual factors where languages meet. These casual get-togethers, chance meetings, planned events invite a fascinating guest list of languages to the party of one’s life, where singular scented sounds mingle with smiling intriguing grammars and wonderful worldly words entertain a multitude of mesmerizing imaginings; and English has been a favourite guest, the life of the party, creating the desired effect. The British Council exhibition at Spring Gardens in London, The English Effect, captures the life of English in the world’s language repertoires, and the effect it has had on individuals – and here is mine….
English, a very important guest at my linguistic party, represents a springboard to my multilingualism. Five years in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, was a stepping stone for dad’s new life in South Africa. Mum joined him after a memorable 30-day cruise on the liner Império. This eventful trip included a surprise 25th birthday celebration, a frightening visit by terrorists/freedom fighters, an apprehensive reception in Luanda as the ship struggled to reach the shore on one engine, and a pit stop in majestic Cape Town. These two immigrants from a small village in the North of Portugal could not quite imagine the impact English would have on the lives of their descendants.
Like my parents English came to Africa on a boat, was spewed out on a stormy night onto the shores of the southernmost tip of Africa, travelled the land, mingled, settled and grew roots. It evolved among unfamiliar hues and sunny skies, transformed as it struggled to describe the rich fertility of the coastland and the desolate dryness of the interior, burned in the African sun, grew hardy and became African.
My introduction to this African English in early childhood was patchy. At age 5, I was thrown into the linguistic ‘sink or swim’ scenario at school, with Afrikaans thrown in for good measure! I learnt to swim, picking up communicative skills to survive in the playground and listening carefully and observing intently to the academic language of the classroom. Slowly but surely English became me; my language of expression, of deep reflection, of academic rigour, of relationships and of childhood friendships; yet it adapted itself to the African context of my half European/half South Africa lifestyle. We had Sundaybraais (BBQs) and bacalhau (salted fish)on Christmas Eve, life was lekker (great), yet speckled with my parents’ saudades(home sickness); Viola and the count, my first Shakespeare, took on a South Africa accent and our playground games echoed those of a faraway land, an unknown heritage – Oranges and Lemons, Ring ‘o ring a Rosie…
My English, my affection for it and my life in it became stronger when I started learning my mother tongue; I discovered its language and literature, its thinkers and its contribution to the world via the history of South Africa: Camões was the first European to sing the beauty and tragedy of the Cape of Storms in an epic poem, Os Luisadas. History lessons in both languages became multi-perspective, kaleidoscopic narratives as the cultural threads of this rainbow land were woven into a whole.
And all the time, I kept looking North, a beacon illuminated other aspects of my lives, a new yet so familiar world beckoned… and curiosity won the day.