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Having grown up in such a linguistically homogenous society as the United States – and particularly suburban California – language has seldom been a point of contention or difference.  In fact, it has never been a point of consideration, with English being the automatic default.  Even during my first week in South Africa, language still was a non-issue as the circles we interacted consisted primarily of tour guides and people in academia – where English was the dominant language.  Even when transitioning into my first week of work, English remained the primary language spoken among the young, urban and educated individuals in my office.  However, I had my first significant interaction with language as a point of contention while on a work retreat last weekend.

Those at the retreat were largely grassroots leaders of the Reclaim the City Movements.  These participants represented a demographic of South Africa different than that which I had previously interacted with.  Those at the retreat represented a degree of diversity more indicative of that of South Africa broadly in terms of age, income, education level, and most notably language.  I remembered being shocked when the language would suddenly shift from English to Xhosa during a group discussion, and participants would proceed as if nothing had changed.  Though I have been in the presence of languages that I do not understand on numerous occasions, this was the first time I felt out as if I was missing out on something because I couldn’t understand the language spoken around me.

At the beginning of the retreat, there was a disagreement as to ground rules pertaining to language.  While one individual suggested using a common language all in the room could understand, another participant advocated for people speaking in their mother tongue.  To me, this disagreement highlighted a sticky situation that often arises around language: how to deal with individuals speaking in a language that they feel most comfortable with but also providing a sense of commonality in speaking in a language all can understand.  This experience was an interesting introduction to the intricate and complex challenges and benefits that surrounds a linguistically diverse society such as South Africa.  Further, this interaction led me to question how comfortable I have been in defaulting to English and assuming that those around me also wish to converse in English.