Blog on Malawi's national language policy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue May 1 14:12:39 UTC 2007


Monday, April 30, 2007
We are Slaves of Language

I have intentionally used the heading that We are Slaves of Language
because indeed we are born into a language, are told to learn it as
children. As we grow, we still have to have a language whether we like it
or not. I wonder if there is a person who does not have any language.
While a language may tell something about who we are, it won't give you
the full picture. Simple. If Victor knows English, it tells you something
about him but I bet there is more you don't know about him.

CONSTITUTION OF THE REPUBLIC OF MALAWI, there is an interesting discussion
on the National language. As known all over the world, language is an
important identity tool but it also serves many other functions. I like
the position of the Special Law Commission which says:

In the final analysis, the Commission resolved that there was no need for
the Constitution to recognize a national language. The Commission was of
the view that the current position has not created any problems that need
to be cured by the introduction of a national language in the
Constitution. The Commission further considered that giving constitutional
recognition to Chichewa as the national language might only result in
creating unnecessary tensions in the country. The Commission therefore
recommends that the Constitution should not recognize a national language.
I will give the background to this resolution later on as I will quote the
whole section before this statement.

I have to say to that I enjoy using Chichewa on air and communicating with
those who are able to. I learnt the language primarily because it was part
of the school syllabus and at some point in my final secondary school, I
liked it a lot more because it was to help me score good points. Good
enough. When I started working in radio, it was the major language for
communication with listeners apart from English. Thankfully, according to
my former boss late Musopole, I improved gradually. He could often come
and give me feedback on my use of the language on air. One day I did a
programme in Chichewa and used a term that offended listeners-I should
have edited again and again though technically speaking I defended my

I also enjoy and prefer to speak my mother languages-Lambya/Ndale and
Tumbuka which I learnt as I grew up in Northern Malawi. These languages
make me connect with myself and the people among whom I have grown. They
also help me have a certain meaning especially when it applies to my
worship of God. The earliest songs in my life were all in Tumbuka and
Ngonde and their impact and identity is indescribable to this day. The
earliest Church Hymn I learnt was "Mwasambira, mwapulika kasi kasi
mwamkudapira.." (You have learnt and heard. There will be no ecuses
later). I think it was number 208 in Sumu Za Ukhristu and I was 7. Though
each word never made sense then, the tune stayed with me and only
understood what the song meant later in life. And this is something I
cannot deny but be proud of. Unfortunately language can be a very
sensitive issue and surprisingly some people think someone who talks in
praise of their languages are tribalistic. This is especially true when it
comes to Malawi. But many times I wonder if it is any wrong to be
tribalistic! I think the problem should be when discrimination is
practised based on tribe or ethnic group.

Elsewhere when one travels, you discover that Malawi is more language
inclusive than for instance European countries which though may have very
few people stick to their small language groups. I was frustrated when I
could not find many webpages in English at a Swedish university which
offers international courses. Learning a new language in a host country is
of course a good thing to do. Even if you know only a greeting and use it
properly, it is helpful and goes a long way. I think doing so means
respect for the language let alone helpful for one to connect and
communicate easily.

At church, I have to rely on a translator and thankfully they are doing a
good job-making me connect with God through English save for the songs.
Many services in the country are in Swedish including radio stations,
television stations, newspapers, websites, etc. Then I remembered that we
dont have any newspaper in Malawi that publishes daily in say Chichewa!

At church, if you find a European or American in a church which normally
uses Chichewa, the whole service can even change language direction to
accomodate the visiting mzungu! But who cares in some places to do
likewise because some Malawian is around and can't hear the local
language! Oh how spiritually starved people can be if they can't find
God's word in a relevant language.

Many Malawian radio station have lots of programmes in English-surely also
serving the majority of visitors who can hardly pick any Chichewa.

I have a good number of friends who are doing courses in a new language
they have had to learn first for a year or so and then proceed. This
should be challenging as learning a new language and use it for studies
while you are no longer a kid is difficult. But they don't have much
choice as they want the further studies and a qualification with which to
earn a better living in Malawi possibly.

Back to the constitutional review background as promised. The Special Law
Commission gives a background which I quote in full (except for

National language
The Law Commission received a number of written and oral submissions
urging the introduction of a national language in the Constitution1. At
the First National Constitution Conference the matter was also discussed.

The Commission was aware that "Chichewa" was declared a national language
in 1978. The issue before the Commission was therefore to decide whether
this position should be reflected in the Constitution. In debating this
issue, the Commission considered the advantages and disadvantages of
having a national language stipulated in the Constitution. In terms of
advantages, the Commission considered that a national language was
considered to be an important aspect of national identity. Second, the
Commission considered that a national language is useful as a tool for
dissemination of development policies of government. Third, the Commission
considered that a national language provides a mechanism for enhancing
national unity and is a vehicle for ease of communication for a nation.

However, the Commission was also aware that the giving of a national
language constitutional status would not reflect the reality of the nation
of Malawi which is a collection of various tribes with their own
languages. The Commission recognized that having the Constitution declare
one language as national may lead to the other languages being regarded as
inferior. Hence, by necessary extension ethnic groups related to the
languages may be regarded as either superior or inferior to others based
on this. In order to avoid such a situation the Commission also considered
whether the Constitution should recognize an official language rather than
a national language.

In view of this, the Commission sought some expert guidance on the
distinction between a national and an official language. In this vein the
Commission learnt that a national language is a "language for interethnic
and wider communication within a country for national identity, unity and
dissemination of information for development purposes" whilst an official
language is a "language of communication for government administration,
legislature, judiciary, education, trade and international relations".

The Commission further heard that per the 1966 Malawi Census Report, there
are four major languages / ethnic groups in Malawi which are: Chewa
(50.2%), Lomwe (14%), Yao (13%) and Tumbuka (9%). The 1998 Malawi Census
Report shows that 75% of Malawi population can speak and understand
Chichewa. The Commission also learnt that historically, Chinyanja was the
national language from 1912 to 1967 and that Chichewa was the national
language as well as a medium of instruction (std 1  4) and an examination
subject from primary to tertiary level of education between 1968 to 1994.

In the period from 1994, the position has remained the same but the
approach has been rights based and more vernacular languages are used in
radio broadcasting. It was also explained that there are designs to have
some vernacular languages used as medium of instruction in the early years
of education. However, even with this exposition the Commission could not
reach a consensus on the issue of the national language.

The Commission considered that the advantage of Chichewa is that it is
widely spoken and understood by the majority (75%) of Malawians throughout
the country and that it is already a medium of instruction in primary
schools as well as an examination subject up to tertiary level. The
Commission further considered that the term Chichewa has no negative
connotations as submitted by other stakeholders nor does the Chewa people
have negative history as such but rather that it was a system of
government that existed after independence which was problematic. It would
therefore be wrong to associate the Chichewa language with the negative
aspects of a system of government.

The Commission looked at the Constitutions of South Africa, Mozambique,
Namibia, Zambia and Rwanda for guidance. With regard to South Africa, the
Commission noted that the Constitution recognizes only official languages
and these are stated in the Constitution.3 There are 11 official languages
amongst which are English and Africans. However the Commission learnt that
although the South African Constitution recognizes eleven official
languages, Afrikaans and English are predominant mainly due to the
attendant high cost of translating all materials into all the official
languages. The Commission also learnt that the recognition of the eleven
official languages was a result of the oppressive political history of the
country whereby ethnic groups were segregated into "Bantu status" based on
their specific Bantu languages.

The Namibia Constitution recognizes only an official language which is
English. However Article 3(2) provides that other languages may be used as
a medium of instruction in schools and for legislative, administration and
judicial purposes in regions and areas where such other language or
languages are spoken by a substantial component of the population. The
Commission however learnt that in practice English is the language used
for all official purposes. The Commission noted that the Constitution of
Mozambique specifically recognizes Portuguese as the official language.6
As regards national language, the Constitution recognizes various national
languages by providing in Article 5(2) that "the State recognizes the
value of national languages and shall promote their development and
increased roles as languages in the education of citizens".

In Zambia, the Commission learnt that the Constitution only recognizes
English as the official language but does not recognize any indigenous
languages as a national language. The Commission also learnt that even the
recent Constitution review in Zambia did not discuss the issue of national
language. The Commission learnt however that seven local languages are
used on radio and television as tools for information dissemination but
that this is merely a matter of government policy and not through

The only instance where legislation has provided for local languages, the
Commission learnt, is in citizenship law whereby applicants for
citizenship by naturalization are required to have knowledge of at least
one of the seven local languages which are Lozi, Bemba, Tonga, Nyanja,
Kaombe, Lunda and Luvale. These languages are also optionally examinable
in the areas of their prevalence.

Finally, the Commission considered the Constitution of Rwanda and noted
that it recognizes both national language, which is Kinyarwanda and
official languages which are Kinyarwanda, French and English.
Labels: Lambya, language, Malawi, mwapulika kasi kasi mwamkudapira,
Mwasambira, national, Tonga

posted by Victor Kaonga @ Monday, April 30, 2007


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