Obies Using Languages: Thobeka Mnisi ‘18

Thobeka is a third year Politics major at Oberlin College.


What other languages do you know besides English and how did you learn each of them?

I know Spanish because two years ago I went on a winter term trip to Guadalajara, Mexico and when I came back to Oberlin I continued practicing here. I speak siSwati which is my native language from home and isiZulu which is what my dad used to speak with me growing up and a language I learned in school for five years. I speak Tsonga because a lot of people in my town are immigrants from Mozambique and it is what my grandmother spoke with me. I also speak SeSotho and isiXhosa, both which I learned by listening to my friends and the news. Finally, I speak English, so that’s six languages total. South Africa has 11 official languages including each of these (besides Spanish).


Which language do you feel like you can communicate best in or are more yourself? What language feels most like home or most comfortable to you?

I use English most of all the languages I speak. Intellectually, I’ve grown up with english so I’m most able to communicate my political ideas in this language. But siSwati is my home language so I can always find ways to say what I mean in Swati even if I don’t have words for it. I think I can communicate the meaning of my emotions the best in siSwati.

I thrive best when I’m speaking to people from South Africa who speak multiple languages because I don’t have to confine myself to any one language in order to express myself, I can use words from multiple different languages to express myself and people with understand me.


What is your favorite word or phrase in another language besides English that is untranslatable to English? What does it mean?

Bayethe is word in siSwati and isiZulu that is used as a kind of praise. When you see something majestic or something you admire, you say this word as an expression of amazement and wonder. For example, at graduations when they call you up to the stage and say your clan name, everyone will say bayethe as a way of praising your whole family lineage.


When you speak in other languages, do you think in the language you’re speaking or translate the words from another language in your head before speaking?

I always think in the language I’m speaking, except maybe for Spanish because this language is still new to me. If I’m immersed in a Spanish speaking environment though, I do think in it even though my Spanish language is limited.


Do you think that knowing so many languages influences the way you learn new material? Why or why not?

The only kind of learning I know is learning in multiple languages, so I don’t know what it’s like to learn in only one language. When I call my family and share what I’m learning in my classes, I realize that I’m actually engaging deeper what the material because I have to find ways to explain the principles of what I’m learning in siSwati when words like “cis-heteropatriarchy” aren’t easily translatable.

It also makes me think about how limited other people’s language must be only being able to relate to one language. Because I know many South African languages, I have affinity with a lot of different pronunciations and have an easier time learning new languages and pronunciations.


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