What monoglots, especially English monoglots, fail to realise is just how limited their world is. Their perception of the universe is coloured by the fact that they can only interact with people who speak their language, and they judge people based on how well or badly they speak it. They can only think about the world in one language.

The reason why I called this post ‘greeting and taking leave’ or ‘saying hello and goodbye’ (ukubingelela nokuvalelisa in isiZulu) is that this is the starting point. For many monoglots, this step is both the easiest and the most difficult. It is easy because it involves saying only one or two words in another language, but it is hard because it also means changing the way you interact with someone. 

When you say ‘hello’, do you think very hard about what it means? How about when you say ‘goodbye’? The roots are quite illuminating here: ‘hello’ means ‘be healthy’, and ‘goodbye’ means ‘god be with you’. These two small words represent a very distinctive world view, one rooted in an entire culture of meaning and symbolism. 

So too, when you say ‘sawubona’ or ‘sanibona’, or take your leave by saying ‘sala kahle’ or ‘hamba kahle’, you are reflecting a specific world view and symbolism – ‘sawubona’ means ‘we see you’, and ‘sala kahle’ or ‘hamba kahle’ means ‘stay well’ or ‘travel well’. There is a fundamental difference between ‘be healthy’ and ‘we see you’, as there is between ‘god be with you’ and ‘stay well’. One is not the same as the other.

Quite apart from the shift in world view, there is the simple matter of respect. By expecting someone to greet you in your language, but not reciprocating in any way, you are showing a lack of respect – uyaveza ukungahloniphi kwakho ngokungabingeleli ngolimi lwomuntu obhekene nawe. If you judge someone on small inaccuracies in their pronunciation of English, imagine how they feel when you don’t even attempt to greet them in their language. To put it a different way, imagine if nobody greeted you in your language. Just take a minute to think about how you would feel if the only place you could speak your language was with people from the same area, or the same household, or the same skin-colour, as you.

This is a reality for many South Africans, and is part of the root cause of many cultural misunderstandings in our society. English speakers, in particular, titter when someone says ‘he is a woman’ or ‘the car he is broken’, thinking that the person saying those things is stupid. What they don’t realise is that those sentences reflect a different language, and a different set of grammatical norms and rules. Try saying the phrases in isiZulu, or seSotho. You can’t? Well then, don’t laugh.

What am I saying here? Basically, just make an effort – you’ll see how difficult it is, but you’ll also show that you recognise someone else’s linguistic dignity, simply by greeting them. Simply by saying ‘We see you’.