The southern tip of Africa is home to one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse populations in the world. Language is key to understanding this complex culture. Of the 11 national languages of South Africa, Afrikaans uniquely embodies the nation's culture, history and political upheaval. Beginning and advanced language learners can find online Afrikaans instruction through educational websites, including learning materials from academic institutions in the United States and Africa.
Online Afrikaans Resources
Whether you are a business traveler or a doctoral candidate in linguistics, useful websites covering all aspects of Afrikaans are available. For travelers or casual learners, Digital Dialects has basic vocabulary lists in categories like food, colors and animals that include audio pronunciation and memorization games. The Afrikaans section of 101 Languages offers more in-depth grammar rules, sociolinguistic information and links to Afrikaans radio stations and newspapers.
For students needing intensive courses or scholarly resources, universities in the U.S. and South Africa offer links to teaching materials and courses in Afrikaans. UCLA’s Language Materials Project and the National African Language Resource Center at Indiana University - Bloomington have large databases of articles about the language. Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, offers undergraduate and graduate programs in Afrikaans language and literature.
Afrikaans, like English, is a member of the West Germanic language family. There are some variations in pronunciation of a few consonants -- for example, “g” in Afrikaans is pronounced more like “k” -- but the alphabet and sentence structure are very similar to English. English speakers conjugate verbs according to their subjects -- I am, you are, he is, etc. According to the website My Languages, Afrikaans speakers say, “ Ek (I) is, jy (you) is, hy (he) is.” The verb "to be" does not change with the subject. Afrikaans has many cognates, or words that sound familiar to English speakers. A visitor to Cape Town, South Africa, will not have a hard time ordering in a cafe where the menu includes “koffie, tee, water and bier.”
Old World Meets Older World
Origins of the Afrikaans language date back to the to the arrival of Dutch traders and settlers in the 17th century. Until quite recently, it was referred to as Cape Dutch and Kitchen Dutch, but its grammar and vocabulary come from many sources, including European languages, Malay, and Bhantu languages. Though it is spoken by citizens of many races, Afrikaans has been closely associated with the era of apartheid in South Africa because it is the first language of white Afrikaners who initiated that policy in the late 1940s. Today, Afrikaans is spoken in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and other southern African countries. It is taught in schools throughout South Africa as well as in international universities in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
Almost 7 million people speak Afrikaans as a first or second language across southern Africa. Today’s South Africa and its neighboring countries are some of the most rapidly developing on the continent. Speaking Afrikaans is an advantage in business and social interactions, providing deeper knowledge of the region. If you are a traveler who enjoys sharing with your hosts, speaking a few words of Afrikaans will demonstrate your willingness to see their perspective even though their English may be flawless. In the end, Afrikaans can be a gateway to an African adventure.
Andrea Godbout has been writing professionally since 2000. She has served as a columnist for Angie's List, highlighting products and businesses in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Godbout earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and creative writing from Barnard College and a Master of Arts in education from New York University.