How Trevor Noah Learned 8 Languages: The Polyglot

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Born a Crime" by Trevor Noah. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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How many languages does Trevor Noah speak? How have Noah’s amazing language skills helped him in life?

Trevor Noah reportedly speaks 8 languages: English, Xhosa, Zulu, Tsonga, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Afrikaans, and German. Learn how they helped him understand his place in a divided post-apartheid South Africa.

Languages in South Africa

When apartheid fell, a focus became making sure all blacks felt represented in the new democracy. To ensure no one felt left out, the new government made all of the major languages official languages in South Africa. There are eleven.

This was a good idea, in theory. But with so many languages, communicating became a daily struggle. No one knew other languages beyond what was picked up here and there, such as at parties where three or four languages were spoken and quick translations were made. Somehow, people made it work and got by. Those who could master multiple languages had particular advantages in post-apartheid society.

Advantage #1: Languages Helped Noah Fit In

The first advantage of Trevor Noah’s language skills was fitting in just about anywhere.

Noah struggled to fit into a cleanly categorized race, which separated him from his community and children at school. He felt black because he was raised within the black culture, but his light skin tone told another story. He looked colored, but he was not culturally colored. He was part white, but no one thought of him as such.

To counteract his ostracization, Noah became a master of languages. His mother made English his first language to give him a leg up in life, and he spoke her native language of Xhosa, his father’s language of German, the language of his oppressors (Afrikaans, created by the Dutch colonists pre-apartheid), and many other African tribal languages he picked up on the streets. Speaking the languages of others allowed him to relate and be viewed as “one of them,” rather than “different.”

Apartheid had created discord in the black community through language. There were many tribes and languages spoken in Soweto. During apartheid, members of certain tribes were only allowed to learn that tribe’s language. Zulu kids learned Zulu, Xhosa kids Xhosa, and so on. Therefore, different groups of blacks believed they were different because they spoke different languages.

Noah understood that language signified identity and community. As he grew older and realized the color of his skin would always make him different, Noah saw language as his only avenue for fitting in.

Speaking a different language than someone makes you an outsider. In contrast, speaking the same language makes them see you as being “one of us.” Therefore, in a world where skin color is meant to separate people, language can be used to bring people together. 

Advantage #2: Languages Helped Noah Stand Up For Himself

The second advantage of Trevor Noah’s language skills was being able to stand up for himself in any situation.

Noah learned many languages. He spoke English as his first language because his mother wanted him to have a leg up in society. He spoke Xhosa because that was his home language. He spoke Afrikaans because Patricia believed in knowing the language of your oppressor. He spoke other languages his mother had picked up as a way to survive. He spoke German because of his father. 

He was inspired by the way languages had helped his mother move through the world and manage difficult situations. For instance, when a white store clerk told a security guard in Afrikaans to follow Patricia and make sure she didn’t steal, Patricia turned and, in perfect Afrikaans, told the clerk to follow her to show her where to find what she needed. 

He started using language as his mother did. When he would get suspicious looks or find himself the target of unwanted attention, speaking whatever language the other people spoke helped him assuage the conflicts. One time, a group of kids behind him was plotting to rob the “white” kid (Noah). Noah turned and spoke their language, saying they should rob someone else together. The kids laughed and apologized for not knowing he was one of them. 

Advantage #3: Languages Helped Noah Make Friends at School

The third advantage of Trevor Noah’s language skills was making friends at school.

At a new school, Noah noticed that the social breakdowns followed the racial divides. White kids played together. Black kids played together. And there Noah was, in the middle with no group. It was the first time he realized that people could occupy the same space and not be together. 

An Indian kid from his class took pity on Noah and befriended him. When this kid found out Noah spoke several languages, he took him around to the various black groups and had him speak, like a parlor trick. 

The black kids couldn’t believe Noah spoke their languages. They weren’t used to white or colored people knowing African languages because they were seen as inferior to English or Afrikaans. The black students wanted to know how he knew their languages, and Noah said it was because he was black—he had only ever been raised around black people. The black kids disagreed, but his knowledge of their languages made them believe he was okay

Advantage #4: Languages Helped Noah Survive in Jail

The fourth advantage of Trevor Noah’s language skills was surviving time in jail.

After Noah was taken to a holding cell for driving a car that wasn’t registered, he didn’t think much of it. Then, the cell door slammed shut and the lights went out. His mind started replaying scenes from all the movies he’d watched and all the terrible things that could happen to him.

But no one said anything to him or anyone else. Everyone was afraid. They didn’t want to be outed as weak or vulnerable. For self-preservation, Noah decided to play the part of a tough guy, which was easier than it should have been.

Colored gangs are known throughout the country as some of the most violent and debased. It’s as much of a stereotype as the mafia is in America. Noah assumed everyone would think he was a colored gangster, so he only spoke in slang Afrikaans with a colored accent. The facade wouldn’t have held up in front of real colored gangsters, but it was enough to fool the others. 

Noah came to think that jail wasn’t so bad. The food was decent. He got to read magazines. All in all, he found it quite peaceful. He was so comfortable, he actually started to think that he could do prison for a few years.

After a few days, a large foreboding black man was put in with Noah and the others. Despite days of posturing, everyone feared this man. Noah overheard the man and a police officer trying unsuccessfully to have a conversation. The cop spoke Zulu. The man spoke Tsonga.

Noah’s stepfather Abel was Tsonga, so Noah had picked up the language. He stepped in and translated for the hulk. In response, the man was grateful. The two started chatting, and Noah realized this man was docile despite his size. He had been arrested for mere petty theft of video games.

The man didn’t have a job and needed the money to support his family. His story was similar to that of so many black men in post-apartheid South Africa. During apartheid, he’d been a slave laborer. Despite the oppression, the job had provided structure and a salary, even if it was close to nothing. When apartheid ended, he had no skills or education and became lost in the new open world. 

His size and dark color made people afraid of him. But the man was like a snake, more afraid of the world because he didn’t know how to fit in. Petty crime and jail stints became his life because it was all he had.

Throughout his life, Trevor Noah’s language skills have allowed him to fit in with different groups, adapt to different environments, and communicate with a wide variety of people.

How Trevor Noah Learned 8 Languages: The Polyglot

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Here's what you'll find in our full Born a Crime summary:

  • Why Trevor Noah's birth was an illegal crime
  • How Trevor's single mother was the beacon of strength in his life
  • How Trevor ultimately broke out and achieved success
Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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