Thursday, 7 August 2014

Being Bilingual: Wie Met Vuur Speel? Deon Meyer [an exercise in tweetaligheid]

"Weens populere aanvraag, die heruitgawe van Deon Meyer se heel eerste spanningsroman! By n boekeveiling sien Ragel Bergh vir Dirk Buchner raak. Oornag verander haar bestaan, en ná n naweek op Houwhoek weet sy sy is nog nooit so volledig bemin nie. Dan gebeur daar iets so ingrypend dat haar en Dirk se pad móét kruis met dié van Ivan Malan, die man met die sagte stem en emosielose oë, opgelei deur die agente van die semi-militêre Firma om mense te manipuleer of te elimineer. Sy opleiding as misdadiger kom handig te pas hy het geslaag in vakke soos toneelspel, vermomming, vervalsing, seksuele uitbuiting, omkopery, afpersing, inbraak en swendelary. As dié kennis nie help nie, bly die wapens onder sy huis langs die Weskus nog oor. Daar sal hy die “liasseerkabinet van die dood” ooptrek.

Finished this book. In Afrikaans ook! This is the first full Afrikaans book that I have read since matric. I never thought that I would ever willingly read an Afrikaans book again. I am really proud of the fact that this has been done.  It took me from 29 November 2013 to 12 January 2014, to read the 277 pages. This is really slow going for a book, but the triumph comes from having read it in Afrikaans. I struggled at the beginning, and could only manage 2-4 pages at a sitting, once I got into it, and the story started to flow, then this increased to 6 then 10 pages, and steadily the reading improved from jerky Afrikaans, to a more flowing narrative once the word order made more sense. To be honest, I needed to go back and re-read sections, or sentences to work out the meaning many times, but it was satisfying to do this and gain a grasp of the story in another taal.
Reflecting back on the experience, I found that initially I was reading and translating in my head back into English, but at some point, this is a fuzzy area where the Afrikaans and English overlapped and gradually became less English, as I just let the reading happen in Afrikaans. Trying to translate the words and sentences into English proved to be a helpful strategy when I got stuck, but it was also a hindrance as I lost the flow in Afrikaans. But gradually I began to trust myself to understand the text in Afrikaans and not rely on englishing it. This is where I began to understand what translanguaging means: it is about moving/switching from one language to another language.  It is not about, as I previously thought, about moving between languages, as this implies that there is always something in your hand. Translanguaging means letting go of one language, and the one that you are comfortable and skilled in, and grasping the other language on its own terms. The linguistic knowledge of English is of little help for making sense of Afrikaans beyond the vocabulary. Once the meaning of Afrikaans words is grasped, by using the home language as a language base, then the second language can take hold in the mind of the user. As long as the user bears in mind, as I have experienced with Afrikaans ways of saying something, that these cannot be adequately expressed in another language without something valuable being lost. This is the translator’s conundrum/dilemma, how to make it clear without losing the core vitality of the language as it is used to convey a thought, or description. And letting go of English, in my case here, was a leap in the unknown, or the unseen world. This is always a terrifying moment to let go of what you know and go into a world where you are the outsider, or where this is not your first language. There is the fear also of being unable to penetrate the words and language of the other, and not being able to connect with the text.  Sufficient knowledge of the other language is needed to make this jump. By way of a metaphor, I cannot half jump across two tall buildings. The jump has to be across the chasm of doubt over to the other side.
Each time I read started reading a few more pages in Afrikaans, this jump had to be made, but it got easier to make each time. It became less unfamiliar. I began to expect that this is necessary and the gateway into the world of the book, but also into the language of the story as it was being told.  The image of a frightening jump was replaced gradually with the image of a portal into a different but increasing familiar world.  Thus, this is useful for understanding the process of translanguaging that teachers encounter and their fears and discoveries. I want to find out more about the teachers translanguaging from Afrikaans to SASL.         
Sometimes I had to stop and go back if a paragraph did not make sense, and that was ok. Or I needed to look up the work, and there were many words that I have never encountered before, or had seen but did not know the meaning. Sometimes I read on ahead to see it made sense, but at a slower pace to absorb it, and this worked well at times but other times I still did not get it and had to resort to looking up the word and that helped break through this log-jam.    
There are a few myths about bilingualism that this exercise showed me: that I saw the beauty of Afrikaans on its own terms, when I read it in and through Afrikaans, and even though Afrikaans is my second language here, I still found the power and expressiveness of Afrikaans that transcended the English translation, in fact, I found that reading the story in its original text, Afrikaans, as constructed by the writer/author instead of relying on the English translation  meant that I lived more richly in the world of these characters, plus it allowed the reader, like me to bring to bear the knowledge of Cape Town into this narrative. This is a uniquely South African crime thriller, and in Afrikaans, which means that it is not pandering to the English genre and knowledges of this genre, crime is a part of the human condition, and more real when it is made real in the context of the place it happens, then the reader feels connected with this storyline as opposed to a sci-fi separation from reality.  The myths about Afrikaans as a progenitor and agency of oppression in south African language and political landscape sells it short as a language of a people with its own ways of seeing the world, which are not necessarily still pre-1994, or apartheid-centric. Indeed, this story showed me, as I have seen on the streets of Cape Town, and at the school, that Afrikaans is a living language and that it has changed.  It is moving away from its knowledge of guilt and memory to a new place of being a part of the South African landscape. The same applies to SASL: it needs to engage in this debate for its space in the public’s consciousness and awareness as a living language that is indispensable. It is not just about the number of users of the language, that does matter, but it about how it is used, and the discourse that it embodies, is it a discourse of bitterness, and victim-hood, and of the oppressed, which is the opposite discourse to Afrikaans, I venture that SASL is now in the place, to accept the hurt and heal from the past, and move away from the oral oppression to a place of strength. What kind of knowledge is being captured and valued? Where is SASL aiming to become and why? How will deaf people carry SASL into the future? I see that there is evidence here that deaf bilinguals are similar to hearing bilinguals, speaking English and Afrikaans, and Afrikaans and SASL are not mutually incompatible, but there are many variations or shades of being bilingual, and that is good. Culturally, I see learning and reading in Afrikaans made me more aware of the Afrikaner mindset and I felt myself becoming an ‘Afrikaner’, partially because I allowed this to happen, and because the culture and language are inseparable, including the history and the present and the future, the same applies to SASL, for me and English, and when I was at the school, with SASL and Afrikaans, which is a reason behind why I wanted to immerse myself in the Afrikaans language and life to heighten my sensitivity to the language from the inside, by being a second-language insider. Making this effort to become connected with the language is vital to getting into the mindset of the characters of the story, but also into ‘hearing’ their story, as some of the teachers are Afrikaans speaking. What about SASL, and where does it fit in and what is the future of deaf learners as signers, and as bilinguals, and what is the teacher’s role as language model and what knowledges are passed and valued, and what will be left behind, and what will happen to teachers and learners in 5- 10 year’s time?  
The acquisition and use of different languages is important in the shaping of the learner’s lives, and also of the teachers, who are on a parallel but different journey. And as a deaf teacher-researcher, I have my fingers in many pies, am familiar with both sides, but look forward to understanding how this works for both sides, with the focus on the teachers who have the interests of deaf learners at heart, although they may not all have the same vision and aims based on their perceptions and experiences and attitudes to sign bilingualism, as it is happening and where this journey is taking them.         

The next book in the series that I want to read, in Afrikaans, to consolidate this bilingual journey and growth is 'Feniks' (half way through now):

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