Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah

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Student Question

How did Trevor and his mother use language to navigate legal and social challenges in Born a Crime?

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Trevor and his mother, Patricia, used their fluency in a variety of languages to fit in with different groups of people because, as he says, you can use language to "convince people that they are the same."

Apartheid was founded on the idea of separation. Black people and white people would have different lives and rights under the system. One way it was maintained was the enforcement of strict legal barriers like not allowing white and black people to have children together. Another way was using language to keep people in small groups. To that end, Noah explains that schoolchildren were taught in their smaller tribal languages like Zulu or Bantu. This made it harder for them to communicate and organize together.

Patricia made sure that Noah spoke English as his first language. In South Africa, he says, English was considered a sign of intelligence. It was the language of business. She spoke Afrikaans because it was what their oppressors spoke. She used language to create a quick bond with people. Noah says he learned to do this from her. It came in handy; he once avoided being mugged because he spoke Zulu.

One example he gives is when a shopkeeper said in Afrikaans that the guard should follow Noah and Patricia because they might steal. She responds in the same language that he should follow them to help them find what they want. This shared language makes the shopkeeper believe that they're different than his preconceived notions of black people.

They use language to create a bond with people, which helps them navigate tricky situations.

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