Photo: Eva-Marie Bloom Ström

Now you can learn to click at the University of Gothenburg

The Bantu languages Xhosa and Zulu are spoken by close to 20 million people in South Africa. The University of Gothenburg is the first university in Sweden to offer courses in these languages, known for their click consonants.
“Everyone can learn to click,” says Eva-Marie Bloom Ström, language researcher and course coordinator.

As of the autumn semester 2023, there is now an introductory course in Xhosa and Zulu offered at the Department of Languages and Literatures. Thetwo languages belong to the Bantu language family and have many similarities with each other.

 “They are more closely related than, for example, Swedish and Norwegian, at least if you look at standard Swedish and standard Norwegian. If you speak Xhosa, you can easily watch a TV series in Zulu and vice versa,” says Eva-Marie Bloom Ström, a linguist who is conducting research into the grammatical structure of these languages.

Photo: Eva-Marie Bloom Ström
Photo: Eva-Marie Bloom Ström

Complex language situation

In total, approximately 20 million people speak Xhosa and Zulu, primarily in South Africa. During the country’s apartheid era, only English and Afrikaans were recognised as national languages. Since 1994, there are eleven official languages, including Xhosa and Zulu.

“It’s a country with a particularly complex language situation. The idea is that the official languages should have the same rights, although this is not the case in reality, with English dominating to a great extent. However, it is quite wrong to assume that everyone in South Africa knows English. You do not have to go far off the beaten track to meet someone who does not understand what you are saying in English.”

A long tradition of collaboration

In addition to basic grammar, vocabulary and simple translations, the course also gives an overview of the role of these languages in society, which Eva-Marie Bloom Ström hopes might improve the students’ understanding of the language situation in southern Africa. The course is offered as an online course, the language of instruction is English and the target group is people who work, live or otherwise have dealings with people in South Africa.

“There is a long tradition of a Swedish presence in South Africa. Many organisations are active in the country and many still remember Sweden’s support for democracy during apartheid. Today, there is generally a great interest in the countries of southern and eastern Africa, which really are up and coming.”

Distinctive click consonants

Xhosa was Nelson Mandela’s language and many also associate it with its characteristic click consonants. Xhosa has a few more than Zulu.

“It's very distinct and you hear it right away. There are many different click consonants and they distinguish one word from another, so it is clearly a challenge. At the same time, clicks are always consonants in the language, it’s as simple as that. Everyone can learn to click. There is always a context and you can make yourself understood even if you don’t manage to reproduce the exact sound. You have to try not to take it too seriously.”

Text: Janna Roosch

Read more about the introductory course in Xhosa and Zulu

Read more about Eva-Marie Bloom Ström's research

Somali and Swahili as well

The subject area of African languages also includes beginner courses in Somali and Swahili: Somali, Introduction course and Swahili, Introduction course.

This autumn, the general course Languages and Societies in Africa will also be offered, which has a sociolinguistic focus. For those more interested in linguistics, there is the course Introduction to Linguistics and African Languages.