In Afrikaans I am fully human


By prof. Vannie Carstens

In this contribution, I write about the ups and downs of Afrikaans-speaking academics on a visit abroad, the problems that foreign languages ​​sometimes cause and then especially about the longing for your own language during such a stay. My own experiences are of course the starting point, but where necessary I also involve colleagues’ or friends’ unique experiences.

One of the advantages of being an academic is the opportunity to travel to other parts of the world at the expense of your home institution. This way one gets a chance to experience Europe, the USA and Australasia. At least not to go on holiday (well, sometimes a few days at your own expense), but to attend international congresses in your field. Without it, an academic’s world will remain small and one of the most important components of an academic career and of a trip abroad, namely the establishment of an international network of acquaintances who also work in your field, will never materialize. Such a network of colleagues at other universities or research institutions is actually indispensable for any academic who wants to stay at the forefront of his/her field. Without it, your career is poor.

So often your network leads to opportunities to spend longer periods abroad as a visiting researcher to work on specific projects, on your own or with contacts from your network. You then spend time (alone or with family members) in a specific country and in this process experience the way of life in the country in question. For a time, you become part of the way of life in the country in question, and you get to know the country and its people: how public transport works (mostly great!), the available housing, the types of food (which often require an adjustment), the politics (usually less turbulent than in South Africa), the experience of religion, the shops, the architecture, the culture of the country, special festivals, attractions, the preservation of places of importance for the country’s history, the monetary system, etc. So the totality of life in the country in question.

But sometimes you are in a country where few people can speak English, and then you are dependent on your own ability to communicate in a foreign language. Many Afrikaans-speaking academics can speak good German, Dutch or French, and then it is of course easy. But if you are dependent on English (which the people often don’t understand) and your limited ability of the local language, the stay becomes quite challenging. Many older Afrikaans-speaking academics will agree with me that a longer stay becomes challenging in terms of communication. An informal sign language quickly becomes part of your speech repertoire.

So I have spent long periods of time in the Netherlands and Belgium either teaching as a guest professor or working as a researcher on a project (mostly a book). In the Low Countries, people can speak a reasonable level of English, although there are many people who have no skill or even understanding of English. The many immigrants from countries whose languages ​​are unknown make it even more difficult. (A conversation between two people, one of whom cannot speak Dutch properly, and the other cannot speak English, becomes entertaining and challenging at the same time.) If you cannot speak Dutch well yourself, which is often the case, you fall back to a kind of Nederkaan, with the structure and vocabulary of Afrikaans combined with those words or expressions of Dutch that you have heard during your current or previous stay and use as calibrated forms. Speech rates also vary easily. (I myself have already learned to speak my Dutch slowly and clearly.)

The danger of “false friends”, words with one meaning in Afrikaans and an opposite one in Dutch, is constantly there, and it can create quite troublesome situations. Along with this, one must also distinguish carefully between the different varieties of Dutch in the Netherlands and Flanders. Sometimes dialect speakers differ so much from each other within 20 km that you can’t understand anything, and then you have to keep your head down so as not to offend. Understanding communication in a foreign country is therefore not always a given.

All this as background to what I really want to get to: The longing for my own language in countries where I feel very much at home, but also know it is not my own.

So I was from September to December 2023 for a three-month writer’s stay in Ghent, Belgium. Thanks to my academic network, it was possible to arrange for me to have access to the university’s facilities (library access, internet, a seat where I could work daily) and I was able to obtain good accommodation. Because I know the area well (I was also there as a guest lecturer in 2018), getting involved was easy: bus routes, supermarkets, bakery.

But towards the end, the longing for my own language did start to emerge. Perhaps it had to do with the Rugby World Cup in France, which I had to experience on my laptop screen and could not, as usual, watch the matches with Afrikaans-speaking friends and/or family members.

I was invited to participate in the fifth at the end of November Festival for has Afrikaans (a festival celebrating Afrikaans in the Low Countries) in The Hague to talk about a large project on the study of Afrikaans’ varieties. The level of conversation in Afrikaans with Afrikaans-speaking emigrants (often younger people who exploit opportunities abroad – but the longing for the people at home was noticeable in the young people’s conversations), listening to Afrikaans theater and singing (Amanda Strydom remains unique !), the informal chats between shows with artists and theatre-goers, were delightful. Suddenly I could speak Afrikaans again and I could spontaneously be Afrikaans. But outside the festival venue in the streets, on the trams, in my accommodation, in the train on the way back to Ghent, it was me and my Nederkaans again.

The world and the language around me was familiar because I had been there several times and because I know the way of life there very well. I enjoy being there. I enjoy the feeling of safety, the good public transport, the good infrastructure and facilities in the area, the access to good shops and the nice people and the friends I have made over the years (my network), all of which have made it possible i could be there For me, however, it was clear that my heart lies in Africa, in the country where my language Afrikaans makes me feel at home and where I can express my deepest feelings in my own language.

When the plane approached the airport over Johannesburg late on Wednesday afternoon and I knew my three grandsons were waiting for their grandfather at the airport, I knew I was home where I belonged. In South Africa, with my people where I can be fully human in Afrikaans.

  • Prof Wannie Carstens is a retired academic at the North-West University (NWU).