My Favorite Nelson Mandela (mis)quote

I love languages. I love learning words in new languages, listening to languages I do not know, trying to guess what language is spoken, talking about language, teaching about the intersection between language and education. My attempts to learn the languages spoken in Denmark, Namibia, Rwanda, Niger, and Uganda – with varying levels of success – were always opportunities to connect with the people who welcomed me in their communities. That’s why I also love this quote from Nelson Mandela:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

This quote is so beautiful that it’s been repeated so many times. It appears on many pages called “Mandela in his own words”, has been used by well-established publishers, language schools, and so it’s not surprising to see it appear in scholarly publications, books, and high-school student presentations. I saw it used in a presentation by a professor I admire at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It’s a powerful quote, by an admirable man.

I love this quote so much that I have wanted to use it often when writing or teaching about language. So, as I have learned to do in my research training, I looked for the correct source to use. That’s when the dilemma occured. Nelson Mandela never said or wrote those words, at least not those exact words.

In trying to find the original (mis)quote, I did what many would do, I searched online, I went to my bookshelf and looked through the index of Long Walk to Freedom and Conversations with Myself, ordered books from the library such as In the Words of Nelson Mandela. All to no avail. The best I found was a reddit thread that pointed me to a 1996 book on the Peace Corps Story. The (mis)quote is used in the forward by Patricia Garamendi. This seems like the first written instance of the quote, at least as far as I can tell.

My breakthrough in finding more came thanks to librarian Marcella Flaherty who quickly got as far as me, and then found another book: Nelson Mandela by Himself. In this book, which uses many sources, including recordings done of conversations between Mandela and Stengel. In these conversations, circa 1992, Mandela said:

“Because when you speak a language, English, well many people understand you, including Afrikaners, but when you speak Afrikaans, you know you go straight to their hearts.”

To some, the difference between the two quotes might not mean much. The spirit of the two is indeed very similar. But, other than the fact that the (mis)quote is wrong, there are is at least one other important point to consider. Mandela was talking about Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, and it’s likely that this quote was said in the context of learning the language of the prison guards. The meaning here was clearly in the context of a strong power-differential between the speakers. In fact, in 1978, Mandela wrote from prison that South Africans should learn Afrikaans as part of the fight against Apartheid. He wrote:

“Precisely because Afrikaans is the language of the oppressor we should encourage our people to learn it, its literature and history and to watch new trends among Afrikaner writers. To know the strength and weakness of your opponent is one of the elementary rules in a fight.” Whither the Black Consciousness Movement?

I want to hear the original quote as the way the (mis)quote sounds, that all attempts to speak to someone in their language is an attempt to connect directly to their heart, to make a human connection that cannot exist in the same way using another language. But I can’t be sure that this universal statement is what Mandela had in mind, because it’s not what he said.

So, the dilemma I face in using this beautiful quote remains. I will not use the (mis)quote citing the correct source, the way this publication does. I could use the (mis)quote with a footnote that refers to the original quote and explain that it reads better without mentioning two specific languages. Most likely, I just won’t use the quote at all …

What do you think?