During the early years of white administration in Southern Rhodesia, few whites spoke the local vernaculars. The state used those few, largely traders and farmers, to translate and interpret. Members of the Native Affairs Department were expected to learn ‘on the job’. However, by the early 1920s, poor language abilities in the civil services, combined with growing segregationist tendencies in the face of African competition, prompted the state to reconsider whites’ knowledge of the vernaculars. The issue raised important questions about defining the boundary between ‘natives’ and ‘civilized peoples’, interactions between white and African communities, and the long-term project for the state.