Let’s Talk isiXhosa (a South African click language!)

Each week on the Let’s Talk series, I’ll be featuring a language learner who will share their heroic process of mastering a foreign tongue. Next up, Kaveh talks Xhosa.  

learning xhosa

-hlazo /ɬazo/ Language: Xhosa. Meaning: A root for the adjective shame. As in, “Shame you aren’t learning isiXhosa right now,” or “The braai was cancelled – shame!” or just in general response to even the most insignificant of problems in life.

I’m Kaveh, an oldie who refuses to finish school because there is just too much to learn. Born and raised in Southern California, I am now conducting linguistics field research on an endangered language in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. While here, I decided it would be wise to learn a thing or two about the languages of Africa as they have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I chose Xhosa (and Afrikaans) because they are the languages offered at the university and many people in the community speak them. Plus, c’mon, Xhosa is a click language! Next semester: Sotho!

Xhosa is one of the official language of South Africa, spoken by about 7.6 million people (18% of the population). It is a member of the Bantu language family, and is well-known for its use of click consonants. 

Numbers for Words

1. How many years have you been learning Xhosa? Going on only 4 months!

2. How would you describe your fluency? 1–10 (0, a houseplant speaks this language better than me. 5, I’m just barely fluent; 11, I could write the dictionary.) Somewhere between 0 and 1. Maybe like 1.1. Maybe. I can get through the basics of a conversation around my host family, getting injured/going to the doctor, what I’m going to do this week, etc. But I am nowhere near able to hold a real conversation or participate in any grand argument about life.

3. Rate difficulty in learning Xhosa, on a scale of 1-5, for each of the following categories: 

     a. Pragmatics/communicational competence. (Appropriate use of language in context.) (3) There is a heavy emphasis on names in older traditional language use, but that’s almost gone with the newer generation of speakers. It can be hard to understand the organization of the world into many different classes, though (see Grammar).

     b. Grammar (5) You think 2 genders (Romance languages) or 3 (Germanic et al.) are bad? Try 15. Xhosa has 15 genders, called noun classes, and each one comes with its own set on agreements for subject, copula (“to be”), object, adjective, and possessive. While its nice to have that type of repetition, it can be hard to keep track of it all sometimes, especially with multiple words and classes to keep track of any given moment. These are all done as prefixes and suffixes, which may be a lot for people to keep track of when working with a noun, a verb, objects, places, adverbs, adjectives – all in one sentence! To top it all off, there are sound changes for almost every combination of prefixes and suffixes with roots. And this is all just things that have come up in the first semester of taking this language, so who knows what future topics hold (the subjunctive, a remote vs recent vs historical past distinction, etc!).

     c. Pronunciation (3) Don’t let the clicks scare you – with a bit of practice, they aren’t that bad. That is, if you can practice them without being scared. There are 5 versions of each click, though, and 3 types of clicks, which make 15 awesome sounds you’ll get to produce for your friends at parties.

     d. Vocabulary (2) If you’re not sure, stick the English word in class 9 and pronounce it slightly differently and you should be fine (itoyilitesi, imoto, isushi). That said, the vocab is the least of your worries when learning this language, but you do have to work on it because of the complex sounds and the lack of common origins with English.

     e. Spelling (1) Latin alphabet, and pretty phonetic!

Language Meets Culture

Learning xhosa

1. Reinforce for me in ONE way or ONE example, from your own experience, the idea that language and culture are inseparable. This is very open-ended, and it’s meant to be ;) 

Speaking to people about their language, you realize how important it is to them and that in and of itself is a sign that language and culture are inseparable. Recently, someone said to me, “There are so many views of Africa. Like, there are 11 official languages in South Africa. It’s not much, but at least it shows that people recognize there are different cultures.” In this brief statement, he made it very clear that language as culture is salient to all.

2. Did language inspire you to travel? Or did travel inspire/force you to study language?

Yes, to both! Since I am abroad in South Africa, and more specifically Cape Town (Western Cape province), there are so many opportunities to use Xhosa. But at the same time, Xhosa is the language of the Eastern Cape, and now I want to go live there just so I can surround myself with the language.

3. Provide an example of how this language has helped you integrate yourself or become more invested in your travels or your life abroad. 

It’s amazing how just a little bit of effort is seen as interest rather than cultural appropriation. Locals are always thrilled when they see that you are trying to learn their language, especially when it’s one that is so radically different from English.

4. You are this language’s lawyer. Build a case for it. Why should people learn Xhosa?  

Did I mention this language has clicks? A complicated but beautiful noun class system that is semi-shared with over 500 other Bantu languages that cover almost the entirety of Africa? The ability to travel around most of South Africa and communicate with others? The long tradition of oral history? A chance to break apart from the norm and learn about a language that overall works in a completely different way than any language you’ve probably ever studied before, pushing what you know about language as a whole? Yeah, there are plenty of reasons to learn Xhosa!

Some Fun Stuff

learning xhosa

1. Favorite word in the language, and why.

So far: lihlazo. Shame! It’s a common expression in South Africa (kind of like Damn! in the U.S.), and it’s just funny to see how it has been adopted into the language and is constantly used.

2. A gesture in this language that differs from English.

The African handshake is as close as I can get:


3. Any insane grammatical features/pronunciation/usage rules that blew your mind as a native English speaker.

The noun class system! 15 cases!!

4. Tell us a funny story or mistranslation you made while learning Xhosa. 

Unfortunately I haven’t been around the language enough to have any, but I’m waiting for the day it happens!

5. An example of Xhosa in use (showcasing your favorite word, of course!): 

UVusumzi ufuna ukuvula irestaurant eRondebosch kuba azikho iirestaurant zamaXhosa eUCT okanye eRondebosch – lihlazo!

“Vusumzi wants to open a restaurant in Rondebosch because there are no Xhosa restaurants at UCT [University of Cape Town] or in Rondebosch – shame!”

Thanks so much, Kaveh! You’re so adventurous for taking on the click languages :) To read more interviews from the Let’s Talk series, click here.