The journey of learning English

English is a beautiful and powerful, but strange language. Yes, admit it. Between concorde, spelling, silent consonants, syntax and the nuances, it’s a lot to get your head around. Most people don’t. They text. It’s another language altogether with a modern dictionary that is constantly evolving… lol, u kno u want 2 lol 2. It’s k. U can stil msg bae dis way…
But for student journalists, it won’t do. No way! No editor, in radio, television, print or digital, will take them seriously if they cannot communicate well in English. Or if their curriculum vitae – which in many cases is the first step – is littered with errors.
How then do you motivate them to speak and write in English when it isn’t their mother tongue? It’s a question I asked myself ahead of the start of the 2018 academic year.
I found the answer in one man: Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, make that, Dr Mbuyiseni Ndlozi.

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Picture from Mbuyiseni Ndlozi’s Twitter profile

Let’s leave politics out of this for a while. Whether you support the Economic Freedom Fighters – EFF – or not, should in no way take away from the amazing accomplishment of this determined young man. He received his PhD in Politics in Philosophy from Wits University last year. For me, Ndlozi’s journey represents one of South Africa’s biggest success stories, ever! More so, because it’s a journey of beating the odds, even before he was thrust into the political limelight.
Listen carefully to a young Ndlozi on national television in 2002.

And here he is at his graduation last year.

That’s how I started off all my lessons at campus in the past week. Students were mesmerised. Students were enamoured too, by Ndlozi’s wide smile in 2002 and 2017. Heartwarming proof, that some things never change.
A stimulating discussion followed, with students realising once again, the immense value of hard work. One phrase stood out, “Association brings assimilation”. Indeed, it does. I motivated students to break the mindset that English is a difficult language and speak more often in English, to write in English even out of class and make greater efforts to read English – magazines, newspapers, newsletters and books. It will make a difference; it has to. Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, this young, enthusiastic man from a township school did it, and so can they. The only thing stopping them is their own attitude.
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Mbuyiseni Ndlozi did not bemoan why he needed to learn English. He mastered it. He rose above the system and now uses his power – yes, education is power – to help the masses as a politician. He is an exemplary role model for the youth of South Africa. And yes, if you want to play devil’s advocate, he does say you don’t have to speak English to be successful, later in the interview. But, that’s on a much deeper level.
For any tertiary student that has English as their medium of instruction and examination, a good grasp of the language is vital. It does not mean you have to use “big words” that no one understands – that’s jargon, and journalists in particular must hit delete and re-write. In fact, the simpler, the better. Using English words that everyone can understand and relate to is at the heart of effective communication.

For me, bringing Ndlozi’s story, and his smile, into my lecture room was the best way I could inspire students and ease them into the volume of work that lies ahead. I sincerely hope it’s the start of their own love affair with English, and that we can learn together. Yes, I am still learning too. There are days when I write and use a word that’s in my vocabulary, but then, I have to look it up and check that I am using it in the correct context. Online dictionaries are a great tool, but for students, nothing can replace a good old-fashioned hardcover dictionary.
So, I want to use this blog post to call upon those who no longer use their dictionaries regularly, to donate it to schools, learners, students and those who want to learn English. It’s a small gesture that can make a big difference. More so, given the high cost of books in South Africa, which are still subjected to VAT, despite escalating calls for this regressive policy to be reversed. We need to keep pushing for zero VAT on printed books. But, we cannot wait for government. We cannot rob our children any longer.
Let us not stop at dictionaries. Let us donate books and magazines too. The statistics around the country’s literacy levels are shocking. We cannot continue to perpetuate this. Without English dictionaries, without books written in English within their homes, how can children know any better? Everyone talks about the reading and literacy crisis. It’s time we take action. It’s time we as citizens are more responsive to the needs of our children.
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Every day, I am in awe of just how strong their desire to learn is; their desire to gain a qualification that can help them improve the lives of their families and their desire to be able to contribute to our country meaningful. Fee free higher education must be applauded, but it does not answer all the burning questions. Everyone acknowledges that. In fact, the demand for education is so great, that both public and private institutions are flooded with students. We can lift them higher in their journeys by giving them books. A popular quote by Garrison Keillor comes to mind – “A book is a gift you can open again and again.”
If this gift is within your reach, I hope you will join me in sharing it. I want our children to become passionate about the English language and be empowered through it. Frankly, it doesn’t matter if it’s a universal language, if it cannot connect us as South Africans.
Let’s spread the love through books!
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