Chichewa 101

CHICHEWA 101

Moni nonse, hello everyone! Since we moved to Zomba at the beginning of August, I've made it my mission to study as much Chichewa as possible! I have weekly hour-long lessons with an excellent teacher, Rebecca. I also practice as much as possible with friends, taxi drivers, neighbors, people in the shops, chickens in the yard, anyone who will help me! My goal is to gain basic proficiency in speaking and listening skills so that I can introduce myself, talk about my family and my work, ask questions, navigate around town, and just in general navigate life in Malawi...without speaking English! I am also trying to learn as much baby-related Chichewa as possible so I can talk to Banjo without English--very useful things like "Don't touch that", "Come here", "What do you have?", "Where are you going?" and "Go to sleep"!! 

Culture is scary! I don't wanna see it!!

Culture is scary! I don't wanna see it!!

Now, do I necessarily need to study Chichewa as intensely as I do to make it in Malawi? No, as a former British colony, anyone the average foreign tourist interacts with in Malawi will speak perfectly passable English. In fact, most everyone I meet with whom I speak Chichewa is genuinely shocked at my "skill" in the language. Let's be serious, at this point I am really only saying four or five sentences consistently well, but that is four or five more sentences than the average white person apparently bothers to learn. I even had one taxi driver here in Zomba tell me he's never heard a white person speak Chichewa. Never! 

How does this happen? Why does this happen? I'm going to get up on a soap box for a minute to say: BOO. Boo on all the white people (probably mostly Americans, let's be honest, as tourists we collectively suck) who travel to foreign countries and don't bother to learn even the simplest and smallest of words in the local language. Boo on you forever. You are why we can't have nice things. I studied Japanese for over 8 years, I lived in Japan on and off for nearly a year and a half, and still, anytime I said something as small as "Hello", Japanese people would freak out, praise my accent and pronunciation, and tell me I was fluent in Japanese... this after saying one word or exchanging two sentences of pleasantries. Imagine having such low expectations of foreigners' interest in your language that "Hello" is impressive to hear me say! World travelers, please, do better. Try!   

Why I Love Learning Languages

In my opinion, respect for another culture begins with taking the time to explore it as openly and conscientiously as possible. It doesn't matter if you will be in a new place for two days or two years, make the effort. Open your mind and your eyes and experience something different! Language is an amazing vehicle for immersing yourself in a new culture because you can learn so much about the culture just by learning words and phrases. For example, when you talk about people, do you include gender markers as part of the innate sentence pattern? Can I be simply a "student" in  your language, or is the only way to describe me properly to label me a "female student"? In languages like English, Japanese, and Chichewa, a student is a student is a student. You need more description to realize that I am a female student. Let's take a look:

Walking down the streets of Paris: It's safe to assume that any time you see a picture of Malcolm and I talking, he is correcting my terrible French. 

Walking down the streets of Paris: It's safe to assume that any time you see a picture of Malcolm and I talking, he is correcting my terrible French. 

  • English       I am a student. (No gender marker)
  • Chichewa   Ndine mwana wasukulu. (No gender marker)
  • Japanese   Watashi wa gakusei desu. (No gender marker)
  • French       Je suis une étudiante. (Gender alert! Gender alert!)

In the last example, the added "e" in "une" and at the end of "étudiante" signifies I am a female. This is the only correct way for me to say "I am a student." I must identify my gender in French. So in this small example, we see a huge implication for French compared to other languages like Chichewa or English. Everything in French is (weirdly) gendered--i.e. hair is masculine, chairs are feminine-- and the only correct way to speak in French is to know the genders. The gender of each noun also affects which pronoun you use, which adjectives, the article that comes before a noun, it's exhausting! It is also fun, because you can learn so much about French culture through your exploration of why certain words are gendered one way as opposed to another. 

But let's get back to Chichewa! That's why you're all reading this post, right? With Chichewa, we say "Au Revoir" to endless lists of nouns marked "M" and "F". We don't need them anymore. In Chichewa, they do not use a gender system (praise sweet baby Jesus). All you have to worry about is singular or plural (which is more work even than Japanese, which doesn't bother with differing between singular or plural).   


Chichewa: An Overview 

Let's get oriented here: Zambia is the dark orange country in the middle of the map. South of that is Zimbabwe, to the right of those is teeny Malawi, hard to read it on this map, and to the right of that, touching the Indian Ocean is Mozambique. For size reference, these four countries combined are roughly the size of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is roughly the size of the whole of Western Europe. 

Let's get oriented here: Zambia is the dark orange country in the middle of the map. South of that is Zimbabwe, to the right of those is teeny Malawi, hard to read it on this map, and to the right of that, touching the Indian Ocean is Mozambique. For size reference, these four countries combined are roughly the size of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is roughly the size of the whole of Western Europe. 

A member of the Bantu language family, Chichewa/Chinyanja, meaning "language of the lake", is currently spoken by over 12 million people across Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. While most Chichewa-speaking areas refer to the language as Chinyanja, in 1968, Malawi's first president, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda (himself a member of the Chewa tribe), decreed that in Malawi the language would be called Chichewa. A virtually unknown language outside of this region of Africa, the conventional spelling system of Chichewa was only standardized in 1973.

Chichewa is the most widely spoken language in Malawi, used most often in the Central and Southern Regions of the country. While it is considered the "national" language of Malawi, it is not technically the "official" language of Malawi. What do I mean? An official language is the one used by the government in all its official operations. By extension, most major news outlets, print, radio, and television, are also conducted in the official language. In Malawi, this language is English. So, for example, all proceedings on the floor of the national Parliament must be conducted in English. The Nation, Malawi's version of the USA Today, is also written in English. The "Weekend" edition of The Nation includes a small insert of stories written in Chichewa. As a "national" language in Malawi, Chichewa is recognized as the most widely-spoken language in the country, but it is not used in an official capacity.

There have been some interesting articles in the newspapers here recently about a negative consequence of English being the official language of politics: women are marginalized. In Malawi today, women have a much lower education level than men. For most women, they may have not moved beyond a primary education; this means their English education also stops by the time they are around 12 years old. For a woman keen on pursuing a seat in Parliament, she must be able to speak, read, write, and understand English. This can be a barrier, not perhaps in terms of understanding or reading and writing, but in speaking. Anyone who studies languages knows, if you don't use it, you lose it! For women living in rural areas of Malawi, they are not using their spoken English enough to feel comfortable making a parliamentary address in the language! Many people in Malawi are arguing that parliamentarians should be able to present legislation and engage on the floor in English or Chichewa.

Walker Bay near Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa (2015)

Walker Bay near Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa (2015)

In order for this to happen, Malawi would have to vote to make Chichewa an official language and then all proceedings of the government would have to be presented in both languages. Any speech, any debate, any new legislation proposals, must be presented in English and Chichewa. For many, this is considered a major time suck, as well as a huge financial burden that the government cannot currently shoulder. There are plenty of countries that do it though. The example that comes to mind is South Africa, which has ELEVEN official languages. You read that right. Eleven. 11. This means that any time anything is done in the government, it is simultaneously translated and entered into the official record in eleven languages. Whew, that's exhausting! Malawi is only looking to add one, and this one could act to level the playing field for men and women in Malawi who are eager to serve their country, but who may not have enough skill in English to qualify to even try to run for office.  


Chichewa 101

Enough about the history and politics of Chichewa, you read this so you could actually learn a little Chichewa, right? Here's a breakdown of some useful words and phrases:

You can order this fun book on Amazon and it comes with a separate book that is an expanded dictionary. It's got very tiny, easy to digest lessons that focus on helping you learn just the basics. Like with learning any language, working with a native speaker is best, but a book like this can help get you started! 

You can order this fun book on Amazon and it comes with a separate book that is an expanded dictionary. It's got very tiny, easy to digest lessons that focus on helping you learn just the basics. Like with learning any language, working with a native speaker is best, but a book like this can help get you started! 

  • Hello.                            Moni
  • Good morning.            Madzuka bwanji
  • Good afternoon.          Masuela bwanji
  • Thanks                         Zikomo
  • Thanks very much       Zikomo kwambiri
  • How are you?               Muli bwanji?
  • I am well.                      Ndili bwino. 
  • I am well and you?       Ndili bwino, kaya inu?
  • What is your name?     Dzina lanu ndani?
  • My name is....               Dzina langa ndi...
  • Ok/alright                    Chabwino
  • What?                          Chiyani?
  • I want....                       Ndikufuna....
  • I have....                       Ndili ndi....
  • What do you do?        Mumachita chiyani?
  • Where do you live?    Mumakhala kuti?
  • I love you.                   Ndimakukonda. 
  • Goodbye (day)          Tsiku labwino
  • Goodnight                 Usiku wabwino 
  • Please go away.         Chokani
  • I ate many bananas.  Ndinadya nthochi zambiri. 

I think it is fun to learn the structure of sentences in foreign languages. In Chichewa, a simple sentence looks like this:

pronoun + verb + noun. Example: Agogo anga adzapita kumsika/My grandmother will go to the market). Agogo anga (my grandmother) adzapita (will go) kumsika (to the market).

To make this a question, you can just add a question word to the front: kodi.

question word + pronoun + verb + noun. Example: Kodi agogo anga adzapita kumsika/Will my grandmother go to the market?

Japanese has a similar system, but the question word (ka) comes at the end. So you can be sitting with someone trying to understand what they are saying and at the very end you hear that little sound with upward inflection (ka?) and suddenly you say to yourself, "Shoot, she was asking me a question! I wasn't paying attention. Ok, let's start that sentence from the beginning..." In Chichewa it's great--you hear "kodi" first thing and you know to pay attention! 

So what are some of MY favorite words and phrases in Chichewa? I love getting my mouth to voice words with lots of vowels and repetitive sounds, like zakudya zamamawa (breakfast) and chinachitika ndi chiyani (what happened?). Again, for me, as a student of Japanese, I see lots of similarities between these two languages. Like with Japanese, every vowel in Chichewa must be pronounced. So in the sentence "I do research/Ndikupanga kafukufuku", it is spoken exactly as it is written. Pronounce every single vowel with the consonant attached to it: 

NDI -- KU -- PAN -- GA -- KA -- FU -- KU -- FU -- KU .  


Short Bio

Here is a short bio in Chichewa I prepared for my second lesson with Rebecca. Yeah, she's awesome! By my second lesson I could do this (with some mistakes, obviously):

Dzina langa ndi Emily. Ndimachokera ku Amerika. Ndili ndi zaka 28. Ndimakhara ku Zomba. Ndikupanga kafukufuku ndi University of Malawi. Mamuna wanga ndi Jordan. Benjamin ndi mwana wathu. Ndimakonda kuyenda ndi kuwerenga. Ndimadana ndi nyemba. Ndimatha kulankhula Chichewa pang'ono. Dzulo ndinapita kumsika kogula nthochi zambiri. Sabata lamawa ndidzapita ku Blantyre kogula galimoto. Ndinu yani?  
My name is Emily. I am from the US. I am 28 years old. I am living in Zomba. I do research at the University of Malawi. My husband is Jordan. Benjamin is our son. I like traveling and reading. I do not like beans. I am able to speak a little Chichewa. Yesterday I went to the market and bought many bananas. Next week I will go to Blantyre to buy a car. Who are you? 

Pretty cool, huh?! Thanks for reading! Zikomo kwambiri!! 


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If you want more information about learning Chichewa or life in Malawi, feel free to contact me!