Learning Zulu made easy

The Johannesburg based Learn Zulu academy has been teaching students and corporate clients not just the language, but introducing them to the culture as well.

Learn Zulu’s courses are an introduction to the language and culture. (Image: SA Tourism)

Khanyi Magubane

“Sanibonani bafundi!” (Good evening, learners!) Sharl Henning, the enthusiastic teacher and founder of LearnZulu, says as he greets the class gathered for their fourth lesson in the beginners’ isiZulu class.

Without missing a beat, the students dutifully respond with, “Sawubona tisha” (Good evening, teacher!) and class is now officially in session.

The Randburg, Johannesburg-based language school is the brainchild of Henning who has been teaching classes for almost 19 years.

“Our training approach is both practical and personalised, with the emphasis on ‘speaking’ and ‘understanding’ the language,” says Henning.

Bringing Zulu alive for learners

For their fourth lesson, the students are tackling isiZulu grammar with a lecture in using singular and plurals. When it comes to mastering the click of the tongue sounds often found in isiZulu, Henning’s students are impressive.

Henning uses practical examples to help students grasp not only the theory, but also how to implement their new found skills. He explains, for instance, when speaking of incwadi (a letter or book, but in this case a letter) that the earliest form of letters in isiZulu were actually expressed in bead-work.

Young maidens would bead love letters for their lovers, using different colours to express different emotions.The men in turn, in accepting the love letter, would wear the beaded trinket or necklace to symbolise his involvement with a woman he intends to marry.

Students are introduced to the language of Zulu bead-work. (Image: Karen Lotter)

In this case Henning shows his students an example of the beaded love letter to give them a visual of the concept and custom.

While teaching, Henning focuses on pronunciation, articulation and sentence construction. He does however encourage the students to do their own exercises as listed in their workbooks by giving examples first, and then leaving the legwork up to them. This gives the students the ability to internalise the lesson more effectively.

A passion for the language

Henning obtained a BA Languages, BA Honours and a Masters degree in isiZulu, graduating cum laude in all three degrees at Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg). His passion for the language inspired him to offer isiZulu classes for adults as a second language.

Beyond just teaching the language, Henning also helps his students understand the customs and culture of the isiZulu people. Over the years, several public and corporate groups have completed courses at the school.

Learn Zulu courses are more than a language lesson. Its an introduction to a culture. (Image: Learn Zulu)

Early last year Henning employed Joe Vezi who, in addition to teaching public classes, also conducts one-on-one sessions with students. Vezi holds a B.Com (Law) Degree from UNISA (the University of South Africa) and a B.Tech postgraduate degree from University of Johannesburg (UJ).

He has spent more than 15 years in the educational and training field and was employed as a senior training specialist at UJ. He has conducted numerous conversational Zulu and cultural diversity courses for corporate clients. Vezi is a isiZulu mother tongue speaker, and hails from KwaZulu-Natal.

His deep knowledge of both the language and culture make him an asset to the school. Henning describes Vezi as “a vibrant, approachable person who has a deep rooted passion for training and for the isiZulu language”.

A quick Zulu lesson

The isiZulu language, although not overly difficult to learn, has a complex linguistic make up.

Henning does however expect his students to remember what they have been taught, thereby encouraging them to keep at it, “If I call you at four in the morning, which I am going to start doing, and I ask you about the prefixes [used in the singular and plural form], you should know them off by heart.”

Henning explains that his latest lessons focuses on 12 prefixes, which will help them to understand if a word is spoken or written in a singular or plural tense.

Without an accent or pause, he rattles off the key components, um-aba; u-o; i – ama; isi-izi; in-izin; um-imi.

Sensing the students’ confusion, he turns to giving examples to clarify the new sounds and grammatical concepts.

Umfana – a boy = abafana – many boys

Ubaba – father = obaba – many fathers (second meaning – father and those with him)

Ikati – cat = amakati – cats

Isitulo – a chair = izitulo – chairs

Inja – a dog = izinja – dogs

Umshini – a machine = imishini – many machines

Just as the students’ eyes light up after the thorough explanation, Hemming tells them that there are however exceptions to the rule. A collective frown ripples through the classroom.

Henning however comforts his students by telling them that it takes at least a year before one is comfortably conversational in Zulu.

For those who don’t have time to attend lessons, a range of self-study products are available online for sale on Learnzulu’s website Learnzulu.

The material includes audio CDs, textbooks; isiZulu dictionaries and isiZulu course software.

Talking Zulu in the workplace

As more companies endeavour to communicate effectively with their employees, corporates are encouraging workers to learn a second language.

One student, Brendan Taylor, chairperson of Provantage Media, a branding and advertising company specialising in mobile out of home media, is attending the lessons with 10 of his employees.

“Because of the nature of work that we do, we decided that out of respect, it was necessary to learn isiZulu to communicate better with our employees.”

Taylor says he wishes more non-Zulu speakers would see the importance of learning the language. “It’s important to try and address people in their own language. White people here in South Africa are lazy, not too many of them take the time to learn [the language].”

In Taylor’s opinion, the time spent at LearnZulu over the past four weeks (with eight more weeks to go) has been worth it. He describes Henning as a good teacher with interesting classes and teaching methods.

Taylor does however admit he’s still battling a bit to wrap his head around the clicks, “everything else is going very well, it’s those clicks, if I can just get those clicks right.”


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