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Student Perspective: From Interpretation to Interaction

Undergraduates take their Class on the Road — to South Africa

A group of freshmen and sophomores taking Sandra Sanneh’s spring course Language and Identity in South Africa decided that they wanted to see the evidence for themselves. They wrote a proposal and drew up a budget, and after receiving many refusals, they were awarded funds from the Leitner Fund for a two-week trip in May 2010.

CHRIS: This trip was an incredible opportunity for us to experience firsthand the people and country we had spent the whole semester studying. I particularly enjoyed when we met with a professor at the University of the Western Cape whose research had served as the foundation for my final research paper. RICHARD: Before coming to Yale, I had lived in South Africa for 18 years without really knowing much about the country or its people. However, spending two weeks as a member of the “Language and Identity in South Africa” class in South Africa opened my mind to a country that I had never fully appreciated before.

JAKE: Our trip demonstrated one point in particular: that this is a country full of contrasts, where First World and Third World rub together every day. In Soweto, an area called Diepkloof Extension is full of houses that wouldn’t seem out of place in Beverly Hills — but just down the hill are blocks of government-built housing that have no running water, and where the only electricity comes from car batteries. Many of the domestic workers, lawn mowers and other laborers who maintain Diepkloof’s pristine appearance live in this poor area and trudge through the grass each morning to start work. Traveling to South Africa made this realization all the more real and tangible.

DAVID: Personally, I was extremely moved by our stay in Soweto. Not only was it fascinating to encounter such a diversity of people and languages, but it also provided unique insight into some crucial ways in which South Africa has changed over the last several years. By interacting with Sowetans, learning bits and pieces of their language and culture, attending a beautiful church service, eating local food and numerous other experiences from our time there, we caught a glimpse of a part of South Africa that most South Africans themselves never see because of powerful misconceptions. It was an invaluable experience that has fundamentally changed and improved my outlook and knowledge about South Africa.

CAROLINE: The trip was intended to supplement the readings and discussions of the course, offering an unusual opportunity to meet personally the people about whom my classmates and I learned, probe issues that were of interest, and witness firsthand current events. What I left the country with, however, was much more than I could ever have imagined. As cliché as this may sound, I not only learned new facts and acquired new perspectives, but a little part of South Africa is now instilled in me—the dynamic spirit of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ courses through my blood, frequents my mind, and tugs at my heart.


The trip focused on two areas of particular interest for the course: Soweto, where most people speak four languages (sometimes all in one conversation!) and Cape Town, where a community of very diverse origins, including a slave community, now has a rich culture articulated in Afrikaans.

Staying at a guesthouse in Soweto, we were able to meet a wide range of South Africans and new immigrants from other African countries simply by strolling in the neighborhood. People of all ages were happy to talk, making it possible for us to ask about language use, attitudes toward languages, and language in education. And indeed, everyone we met seemed comfortable speaking several languages. We discovered that everyone has a unique family history, and that only a few individuals we met traced their family history back to one particular ethnicity. Indeed, most seemed eager to move away from the ethnic labeling that had been a cornerstone of the apartheid era.

Jake-SowetoOne of the highlights of the trip began one night when we visited a park in Soweto to toss a Frisbee. There we met some boys playing soccer and other games. We all joined in their games, and just before the children had to return home, we found out that they were part of a gumboot-dancing group. They invited us to watch them perform at the Kliptown Youth Centre. We were all a little apprehensive about walking into an “informal settlement” (the South African term for a collection of shack dwellings) to watch the boys perform, but as soon as we walked in, we were warmly greeted and directed to the youth centre. There we discovered that the youth centre was part of a large community project to help children with schoolwork and to better their lives.

We also visited some of the most interesting and culturally significant sites in the country. One such is the Hector Peterson Museum, which gave us an insight into one of the darkest parts in South Africa’s apartheid history. The museum records the 1976 Soweto Children’s Uprising, where over 200 schoolchildren were killed by police while protesting against the apartheid regime’s language policy for education. We also visited the Voortrekker Monument, which commemorates the struggle for an Afrikaner nationalist identity. The massive monument depicts the major battles between Afrikaners and African armies, in particular Zulus and Tswanas.

We spent the second part of the trip in Cape Town, and staying not far from one of the new stadia built for the Soccer World Cup, we were able to tap into the growing excitement for that event, which began shortly after we left. We were struck by the beauty of that city, and also by the dominant presence of the so-called Coloured community whose culture and identity differ sharply, we found, from that of the black community we had come to know in Soweto. A discussion with a very diverse group of students specializing in Afrikaans language studies at the University of Western Cape confirmed our perception of the richness of this new and changing culture. All the students were adamant in their conviction that the Afrikaans language is a vital component of South Africa’s intricate linguistic tapestry.

We also had discussions with top professors of sociolinguistics. We traveled to the University of Witwatersrand to talk about the changing terminology of xenophobia in South Africa with Professor Nhlanhla Thwala. We went to the University of Pretoria and the University of the Western Cape to talk about the future of the Afrikaans language in South Africa from Professors Hein Pieterse and Steward van Wyk, and with Dr. Charlyn Dyers about her research into language and identity among Coloured youth. At the University of Cape Town, we discussed the role of accents in South Africa with Professor Rajend Mesthrie. All these meetings enriched our academic understanding of the interactions between language and culture.

Our two weeks in South Africa was definitely an experience that none of us will forget. The trip truly opened our eyes to the cultural and linguistic diversity of the country. None of this would have been possible without the generous support of the Macmillan Center. For that support, we are all deeply grateful.

- Jake Amatruda ’13
- David Carel ’13
- Caroline Dewing ’12
- Richard Dodd ’13
- Christopher Murray ’13