Let’s stop borrowing too many English words

The National language of any country is among the most important identifying tools of that nation. Like a national flag, it is a symbol of national unity. Take an example of Swahili to the Tanzanians. It identifies them, and unites them. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o argued that mastering a foreign language always propels you to think in that particular language. “We can fully decolonise our mind by stopping using foreign languages” he argued.

Reading  vowels and words in Chichewa

Reading vowels and words in Chichewa

Ngungi Wa Thiong abandoned writing in foreign languages and promoted his own Kikuyu language. Such is the passion of other people towards their native language.However, Ezekiel Mphahlele and Chinua Achebe argued that it is difficult to stop using foreign languages because they break linguistic barriers between nations.

Chichewa is the national language of Malawi that was declared by Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. It is one language in addition to English, French and Latin taught in Malawian schools. It is not the objective of this article to look into the merits and demerits of this decision declaring Chichewa as the national language or digging the politics behind it. The main objective is to look at how Chichewa is losing some of its words (vocabulary) because of the reckless over-borrowing of English words perpetuated by our own media houses: both print and electronic.

Translation is a process in which a text is transferred from a source language into a target language. For example, if a text is in English and you want to translate it into Chichewa, English is the source language while Chichewa is the target language. There are several processes that are used when translating a text from one language to another. The two well-known processes include coinage and borrowing.

In coinage, you actually come up with a new word which does not exist in the lexicon of the target language. A person can coin a word to suit a particular thing or event which one intends to translate if he or she cannot find an equivalent in the target language.

A good example of a coined word is “ndale”. The word “ndale” was simply coined by the late John Msonthi when he was translating Dr Banda’s speeches. Msonthi could not find a local word for politics. Coining a word is a skill; the word coined must resemble the word in the source language. So if we were to coin a word for “sugar” the word “tseke tseke” might come closer to the meaning of sugar.

Then, there is borrowing, this is the most controversial process and it is the main reason why we the authors have written this article. Borrowing involves taking a word from another language and transfers it into your own local language. This is where the problem is; too much borrowing might not be good to your own language, it might overwhelm your lexicon and some words might end up disappearing completely.

How many people would remember hearing words such as “Azakhali,when all you hear is “Aunt”? Prominent linguistic, Professor Pascal Kishindo, has cautioned against over-borrowing arguing that it should be the last resort. You only borrow a word when you cannot translate that word into your local language or it has no any equivalent word. Malawians have borrowed words like “suga”, “tebulo”, “sopo” and “supuni” and popularise them even though attempts have been made to come up with local words like “chikombe” for spoon,and “gome” for table. Borrowing has taken its toll on our language.

The truth is that nowadays borrowing has reached an alarming rate that one wonders how many English words would actually be in our Chichewa lexicon in the next five to ten years. What is even worrisome is that the main culprits in this borrowing are our own media houses both print and electronic. The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) to say the least is one of the main culprits in this borrowing. If the aim of the station is to fit in the 21st century, it is doing it at the disadvantage of our Primary and Secondary school learners.

Listening to Za m’maboma all you hear are words like ‘Hedimasitala’ ‘kampeni’ ‘sabuside’, ‘bajeti ya zachuma’,rumu’ as if all these words cannot be translated into Chichewa. Translation does not mean changing orthography, such as writing the word “President” as “Pulezidenti”, that is borrowing the word. Translating President means Mtsogoleri wadziko.

There are good reasons why languages are translated; one of the most important is to let people who do not understand the source language to get the message in their native language. It becomes a problem when words like “digital clear” are translated as “dijito kiliye” and you expect people to see any difference. All this is happening not because Malawi has no translators but simply because of laziness, always looking for shortcuts to maximise profits.

The sad thing is that the same language our students hear on our radios is the same they write in “Chimangilizo” (essay).Words such as “ku rumu”, “ku resitihausi” are found in their essays because they are exposed to input that is incomprehensive. Can we blame them? After all; do we not believe everything that radios stations say?

Let us protect our language and stop this over-borrowing. Borrowing must be the last resort in translation.

  •  Mathews Chione, 2 nd Year Law student,  and Lester Brighton Chisale, 3rd Year Language student all at Chancellor College.
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Foolish people and their foolish language.who told you chichewa is national language? As long as i live my children and my descendants wil never participate in your chichewa drama.


Bravo guys pls keep enlightening the nation so that our national chichewa language should completely be diluted and eventually became extinct,the private sector and givt should support you guys to come with mtanthauzila mau so that our current and future generation should lose its national language.Come on do you knw that we borrowed nsapato from the portugese langauge its called sapato’,galimoto from indaian and english languages gali- garee,moto-motor,pensulo – pencil from the english,komputa,intaneti,kalenda,bini….iiiiih koma inu zanyanya,in Tanzania they use swahili in parliament.

he he he

meant to say poor translations

he he he

Good piece. Think of power translations like “Nthawi zonse gonani m’masikito” trying to say always sleep under a mosquito net. Masikito could probably mean mosquito and not the net


The major challenge is to popularise a word after coinage or borrowing so that it is used by the language speakers. take the Swahali for instance, they have borrowed a word like simu for cellphone and is now but a Swahili word coz they have structures to that effect. the question could be, whose responsibility is it to coin or borrow words and popularise them in Malawian? By the way, Prof. Kishindo, where is our “Mtanthauzila mau” it could come handy to the Hassan Goba’s.


linguistic point of correction: coining & borrowing r not processes of translation, but word formation processes in a language..

All too often politicians and public speakers in Malawi use English to address their audiences. Why do they do this? Is it to make themselves appear superior and important?If they have something worth saying that they wish their audience to hear and understand, then they should speak in the mother tongue, i.e. Chichewa. K H Banda always spoke in English having spent many years outside the country and having forgotten how to speak in Chichewa, but he had a translator to hand to put his words into Chichewa. Also those Malawians who use English in public speeches tend to make… Read more »

Well written article. Rich in form and class. Keep it up boys.

Like it or not, chichewa is a national language. the only problem is that some of you people especially from the North have low self esteem and inferiority complexity eats you big time that’s hence the tendency of rejecting anything as long as it has elements from the south or centre. accept the reality on the ground. TO YOU SAMUEL: In your comment you have criticized the writers for using foreign language. Please understand this; using foreign language in communication is not borrowing. I think you should read again the article to understand what ‘borrowing’ means. Big up lads for… Read more »

Malawi is so much into meeting foreigners’ needs while forsakening our own needs even language wide. Look at China,every exchange student who goes there is supposed to learn Chinese for a year before getting into their field of study… why can’t we do the same in our schools instead of giving ourselves to mind decolonisation?

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