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Taking it as a sign: Branding and African language literacy development

Tessa Dowling, Senior Lecturer in African Languages in the School of Languages and Literature at the University of Cape Town, talks about the role of brands and language in the South African context:

If you were an African-language speaking child growing up in South Africa, the first written words you’d see wouldn’t be ones from your own tongue. Nearly all the words on packets, street signs, billboards and buses are in English: Stop! No entry! Pick n Pay, Sunlight, Sale, Dark and Lovely. If you lived in an informal settlement, there might even be English words on your house, because of where the building materials come from.

The most common brand names would enter your lexicon, and if they weren’t explained to you, you might start to give them your own meanings. Like the little girl in a remote Eastern Cape village who told me that Cutex was the isiXhosa word for fingernail (she pronounced it very cutely as “tyutex”). Or the little boy in Willowvale who gave me a plastic shopping bag when I asked if there was a Checkers nearby.

In Diepsloot, 32km north-west of Sandton, nearly all of the 138 000 residents speak one of South Africa’s mother-tongue languages, but the majority of signs the informal traders erect are in English. Sometimes it’s obvious that the sign makers don’t really know how to write in English, but they get their message across: it doesn’t take long to work out that “creach from 3 months up wats” announces a crèche that takes children from three months upwards.

As Nal’ibali director Carole Bloch once put it, African languages are “print scarce”. Which is why advertisers and media leaders who incorporate them into their campaigns should be applauded with a loud “Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!!”. Like Nando’s clever Hlonipha ulwimi lwakho (isiXhosa and isiZulu for “respect your tongue”). You can read Siyaya (isiXhosa and isiZulu for “we are going”) on Toyota taxis, and Golden Arrow has Sibanye (“we are one” in isiXhosa and isiZulu).  Switch on the TV and you can hear African languages in the Fish & Chip Company’s hilarious advertisements and King Pie’s wonderful Mnandi-licious (a play on the isiXhosa and isiZulu word for “delicious” – mnandi) commercial in which a young white woman chirps in fluent isiZulu.

But there is more to it than just the stylishness and surprise of seeing and hearing an African language in mainstream media. If children are allowed to witness advertising creativity, word-play and punning in their own languages, if they see the tempestuousness of Tsonga, the sweetness of Swati, the zaniness of isiZulu being celebrated by big brands, then there is a much huger benefit. They will see that their own languages, not just English, can communicate knowledge and new ideas, fresh and delightful, mnandi-licious ways of seeing the world.

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