E-Travel Log # 7: African Languages

Dear students:

Hallo! Goeie more! (That's Afrikaans for ‘Hello! Good morning.’) We’re just getting back to Windhoek from our trip to the Kalahari. We’ll tell you about that trip in our next report. In this report, we’re going to take a look at Afrikaans, a language spoken by most Namibians that is related to English. We’ll also challenge you with another guess-who animal poem and list more responses to your questions, this time answered by students at the Van Rhyn Primary School in Windhoek. This report also contains several photos of animals we took while visiting Etosha. Enjoy!


Afrikaans (pronounced Afri-cons) is the colonial language of Namibia and South Africa. In other words, it was originally spoken by Europeans who colonized southern Africa (just as English was originally spoken by Europeans who colonized the United States). Over the years, Afrikaans became the mostly widely spoken language in South Africa and Namibia (similar to how English became the most widely spoken language in the US). Afrikaans was even used widely among native Africans, especially when people who spoke different mother tongues were speaking to each other. So, in more cosmopolitan places, like Windhoek, Afrikaans, over several generations, even became the mother tongue of many people with African ancestry, to the point that today, at a school like Van Rhyn Primary School in Windhoek, where Lilia and I have worked, most of the students have African ancestry but speak Afrikaans fluently (some as a first language and some as a second language).

My ancestors spoke French, German, Gaelic and Iroquois, but English is my first language. Like her ancestors, Lilia speaks Chinese, though she speaks fluent English as her second language. How does the language (or languages) you speak compare to the language (or languages) your ancestors spoke? If they are different, do you know the history of why they are different?


On Independence Day, March 21st, Namibia will celebrate its fifteenth birthday – and many Namibians (despite what I told you above) will be singing Happy Birthday in English instead of Afrikaans. Now, why is that?! Well, when Namibia got its independence fifteen years ago from South Africa, they did something practically unprecedented in the history of the world: When it was time to choose an official language for the country, instead of choosing an African language, like Nama-Damara or Setswana, or the colonial language, Afrikaans, which most people in the country spoke fluently, they chose a language that very few people spoke: English! Now, why would they pass up the languages they spoke well for a language they didn’t even speak? That would sort of be like the US government deciding that Americans were no longer going to speak English and instead were going to speak German! How would you like that?! (Actually, way back when the US was deciding such things, German only lost to English by ONE vote to be the official language of the US – but that’s another story.)


There are two main reasons why Namibia chose English. First, English is an international language. It is spoken all over Africa and the world. Afrikaans is only spoken in southern Africa. If Namibia spoke English, they would be able to trade and conduct business more efficiently with countries all over the world. Second, Afrikaans was the language of 'the oppressor,' the former apartheid regime of South Africa which separated Namibians according to race and denied rights to people with African ancestry. Namibia wanted to disassociate itself from apartheid.

But why didn't Namibia, an African country, choose an African language, like Herero or San, to be its official language? Well, again, it has to do with how widely those languages are spoken. Namibia has 11 major languages, one for each of its 11 major ethnic groups. But each is spoken only in the region where the respective ethnic group lives. None is spoken around the world, let alone around Namibia. So Namibia decided to encourage people from particular regions to speak their mother tongues AND the new official language, English. In schools, for example, classes are now taught in the mother tongue of the majority of the students (whether it be Afrikaans, Oshiwambo, Nama-Damara or Setswana) until fourth grade, after which they are taught in English.

So, people throughout Namibia still speak their mother tongues, Afrikaans is still widely used and everyone is learning how to speak English. It is truly a multilingual society.


Try your tongue! Here's how to count to ten in Afrikaans:

1. een (ee-ehn)
2. twee (t-vee-eh)
3. drie (dree)
4. vier (fear)
5. vyf (fayf)
6. ses (sess)
7. sewe (see-eh-veh)
8. agt (agcht)
9. nege (nee-eh-gheh)
10. tien (teen)

(Note: The pronunciations in parentheses are approximate. Afrikaans has several sounds that do not exist in English. For a more complete pronunciation guide, visit the Travelang Web Site at www.travelang.com and choose Afrikaans.)


If you look closely at the Afrikaans number words, can you see any relationship between them and the English words for those numbers? Afrikaans (a variation of Dutch) is related to English. It has lots of words, like 'help,' 'April,' 'November,' 'man,' 'rebel,' 'pen,' and 'water' that are spelled the same as in English but are pronounced slightly differently. Then, it has lots of words that are spelled a little differently but are close enough to English words that English-speakers might be able to guess their meaning. Have a try with these Afrikaans words and phrases:

Wat eet jy? (Hint 'jy' means 'you.')
What is jou naam?
Help my!
Hy is laat.
Dit is Februarie.
Hy eet brood.
Sy is my dogter.
Hy is my seun.

I'll put the answers in my next report.

There are also some words in Afrikaans that, though different, connect with English in some way and make the meanings easy to remember. For example, 'land' in Afrikaans means 'country' in English, 'kinders' means 'children' and 'praat' means 'speak' or 'talk' (a related English word is 'prattle' which means 'to babble or chatter foolishly.’ Then there are lots of words that don't seem to be like English at all. For example, 'ontwikkeling' means 'development' and 'taal' means language. Can you see any relationship between those words and English words? Sometimes there are some tricks to learn the unrelated words, though. For example if you say 'Buy a donkey,' you are pronouncing 'baie dankie,' which means 'Thank you very much,' correctly.


Here's a guess who animal poem about an animal we saw in Etosha. The title is the Swahili word for the animal speaker. The poem can be read to a steady 1-2-3-4 beat. Guess who!

Punda Milia

I'm alternated syncopated bifurcated vacillated
Band-Aided striated variegated modulated

If you sliced me up, arranged my parts by shade
On one half I'd be dark, as the ace of spades

On one half I'd be light, as the winter snow
Can you catch the wave? By now you should know

I'm alternated syncopated bifurcated vacillated
Band-Aided striated variegated modulated

If you sliced me up, arranged the parts in squares
I'd be like a checkerboard with a tail, a mane and hair

Cause alternating colors are my claim to fame
Just as colors alternating are my fame to claim

I'm alternated syncopated bifurcated vacillated
Band-Aided striated variegated modulated

If you sliced me up, arranged the parts in strips
I'd look just like myself from my nozzle to my hips

Just like a palindrome, the same is left and right
Like looking in a mirror, I'm a duplicating sight

I'm alternated syncopated bifurcated vacillated
Band-Aided striated variegated modulated

Who am I?

Visit the project Web site and you'll also be able to click forward to a drawing and photos of this animal and read interesting facts about it. By the way, the animal in the last report's poem was the vulture. Were you swooned by its crooning?


Here are some more answers to your questions. These were answered by second graders at Van Rhyn Primary School in Windhoek.

What kind of school supplies do you have? We have books, papers, colored pencils, pens, crayons, pencil sharpeners, markers, glue, files, computers, rulers, erasers, pencils and tape.

How many years do you stay in school? We start school at age five (Kindergarten), though some children go to Pre-school before that. We usually end school (grade 12) by age 18.

What are some popular pets? We have lots of pets. Some are as follows: a chicken named Poppy; budgies named Betty, Penny, Lucky and Papagaai; parrots named Flexor and Micky; cats named Lucy, Leidia, Suzie and Kitzie; and dogs named Beauty, Poppy, Ashley, Rex and Nala.

What are some of the special holidays and ceremonies in your country? The official holidays are New Year's Day; Independence Day (March 21st); Ascension Day (a religious holiday, usually in March or April); Worker's Day (May 1st); Kassinga Day (May 4th: a celebration of the martyrs who died in Kassinga, Angola, when South African troops attacked during the time of apartheid); Heroes Day (August 26th, when we celebrate the lives of fallen heroes, those who died in the struggle for independence); International Human Rights Day (December 10th); Christmas; and Family Day (December 26th).

Do you have a diverse population? Yes, altogether, the students at our school speak a total of seven different languages.

Do you have special songs that you sing to your flag? Yes, our national anthem and our school song. The national anthem goes like this:

Namibia, land of the brave
Freedom fighters, we have won
Glory to their bravery
Whose blood waters our freedom

We give our love and loyalty
Together in unity
Contrasting beautiful Namibia
Namibia our country
Namibia mother land
We love thee.

What kinds of plants and trees are near your homes? We have acacia trees, grass, cactuses, aloe, jacaranda trees, pepper trees, cedar trees and lots of flowers, just to name a few.


Well, that's it for this report. Totsiens ('Goodbye' in Afrikaans) for now. Next time, we’ll be telling you about our trip to the Kalahari. Till then, learn lots!

Paul and Lilia
Africa School Project Coordinators


Teachers: The two antelopes in the photos are a steenbok and blackfaced impalas. The bird is a whitequilled korhaan.

E-Travel Log #1: Introduction
E-Travel Log #2: Windhoek, the Capital of Namibia
E-Travel Log #3: Namib Desert Sand Dunes at Sosusvlei
E-Travel Log #4:Swakopmund, Between the Desert and the Ocean
E-Travel Log #5: African Animal Safari!
E-Travel Log #6: Okanguati, the Forgotten Land
E-Travel Log #7: African Languages
E-Travel Log #8: Schools in the Kalahari Desert
E-Travel Log #9: Cheetahs!!
E-Travel Log #10: So Long from Africa

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