Trying to save South Africa’s first language

Image caption

Katrina Esau is working hard make sure that the language of her childhood outlives her

Katrina Esau is working hard to save the language of her childhood from dying out.

At 84, Ms Esau is one of the last three fluent speakers of N||uu, one of the languages spoken South Africa’s San community, also known as Bushmen.

N||uu is considered the original language of southern Africa.

With no other fluent speakers in the world apart from this family, the language is recognised by the UN as “critically endangered”.

“When I was a child, I only spoke N||uu and I heard a lot of people speaking the language. Those were good times, we loved our language but that has changed,” says Ms Esau in Upington, a town in the Northern Cape Province.

For centuries, the San roamed this region freely, gathering plants and hunting animals to feed their families.

But today the traditional practices of the San have all but died out and their descendants tell me that language is one of the only things left that connects them to their history.

Inside a small wooden hut, she teaches the 112 sounds and 45 distinct clicks of N||uu with the local children.

“I’m teaching the language because I don’t want it to become extinct when we die,” Ms Esau says.

“I want to pass as much of it as I can but I am very aware that we don’t have a lot of time.”

Ms Esau has been running the school in her home for about 10 years.

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Media captionListen to 84 year-old Katrina Esau speaking N|uu

The people in this community, including Ms Esau now mainly speak Afrikaans – a language brought by the Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in the 17th Century.

“We would get beaten up by the white man if we were caught speaking our language,” she tells me.

“Because of our history, people today do not want to speak the language any more, there is so much pain around it.

“We abandoned the N||uu language and learned to speak Afrikaans, although we are not white people – that has affected our identity,” she adds.

Ms Esau’s two sisters Hanna Koper and Griet Seekoei – both over 95 – are listening intently as she speaks with bitter…

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