Few weeks ago there has been a heated debate about which language should be used as Malawi’s official language. What triggered the debate was a video clip that went viral of one of Machinga South East Constituency legislator Fyness Magonjwa. She was being interviewed by reporters after the inauguration of a bridge by the Minister of Transport. Her switching of codes from English to Chichewa due to her incompetence in English sparked a heated debate on social media.
Many of the forums I followed, a lot of people were of the view that Malawi should adopt Chichewa as an official language. My argument is that many have been arguing on the surface without a proper linguistic knowledge and now I would like to highlight as to why Chichewa cannot be elevated to the status of a national language as at now.
Many judged the youthful Member of Parliament’s intelligence basing on her English language competence and performance. Looking closely at the clip, the lawmaker was so confident and had a message to communicate. However, those saying that we better elevate Chichewa to the status of national language had a point.
Some reached an extent of citing examples like Tanzania where they use Swahili and they have even a bit developed unlike Malawi. However, it can be no easy task to elevate Chichewa to an official language as many have been suggesting.
Firstly, let me take you back to 1968 when Chichewa was elevated to the status of national language. What was used to elevate Chichewa is what we call status planning. It was just chosen without making proper consultation within the populace. It was simply elevated at a Malawi Congress Party (MCP) convention and many up to now still view it as it was a ploy by Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda to impose Chewa identity on the people of Malawi.
Initially, before the elevation the language was called Chinyanja but upon being elevated it was named Chichewa. This made people of Malawi think that Kamuzu wanted to bring the language closer to the tribe which he was coming from and many received it with emotions.
In this case one realizes that linguistic justice was not achieved as Chichewa was just chosen without proper linguistic research. It was in a way done under political influence because the country has more than sixteen languages but the criterion used many feel was purely political.
Elevating the language today can spark a more heated debate as some people have not accepted it fully even just as a national language. Some years back there were calls that also sparked some debate as many were of the view that the name of the language should revert to Chinyanja so that it should not be inclined to a particular tribe.
Secondly, trying to elevate Chichewa to the status of official language will be costly in so many ways. Chichewa is an already established language but is not fully developed. It uses a lot of borrowed words, lengthy explanations for simple English expressions and its orthography and grammar still need some development. For this to be done it calls for an extensive linguistic research and investment in the language in question. You can verify this by just taking a closer look at science fields like Medicine, Agriculture, Accounting and others.
The question now is; we have the Centre for Language studies in the University of Malawi, yes, is it well funded as at now? Is it carrying out linguistic research as expected?
In addition to the above, elevation of Chichewa to an official language may also affect the school curriculum.
The language of instruction may also need revision as the use of Chichewa may now come in. This means publishing new books, delivering them to schools and training teachers on how to use them. All this will need financial resources. Just thinking aloud on the point of resources; where are we going to get resources for such kind of activities when as at now the government has not done well in the implementation of the new curriculum? Many a school have no enough books of the new curriculum and many teachers have not been trained on how best they can use materials that are in the user system.
Seriously, it can be an uphill task for Malawi to elevate Chichewa to the status of official language. Many do not know that elevating Chichewa to an official language can be suicidal. In today’s world we talk about the global village. For the global village to be functional and real there has to be effective communication.
English is the language that has been used mostly for this village to be there. Some may argue to say countries like China, Japan and some countries in the Middle East have developed and are connected to the world though they have been using local languages. That is where the issue of linguistic research and investment comes in now. Those countries have invested so well in their language planning policies that they have even developed software for language translation hence they are able to be in touch with the rest of the world.
The question is as a country do we have the financial resources to do that? By elevating Chichewa as an official language it means we are taking ourselves away from the global village. Chichewa can cater for 80% of the population though only 65% has a functional literacy or active command of the language. However, English may be learnt as a second language but it has been seen that in most countries where they use their own languages people have no interest to learn other languages.
My last point is that the judiciary, executive and the legislature all use English and if we are to change it means all documents need also to be translated to Chichewa. Imagine how bulky the budget document can be. It can also be so difficult to understand. Imagine the same with bills and other laws and other government business documents. They can be so bulky and so demanding and may need a lot of resources for them to be translated to make sense to donors.
What we should bear in mind is that most of our programs are donor funded hence the donors need to understand what we are doing. In a way this may put as at a disadvantage.
Taking into consideration all the above raised factors for now what we can do is for us to continue with the use of English as an official language. We simply have to make sure our education standards are raised up to the expected standard. Teachers should be well trained and motivated, schools should have enough resources so that the products from our education system should be able to read, write, comprehend and speak good English especially where they are supposed to do so.
In the media people should be free to use any language provided it is translated so that the majority can understand rather than for us to make a costly mistake of elevating Chichewa into a n official language of Malawi.
- Peter Kamzimbi Jr is a Chancellor College trained linguist but now an Assistant Lecturer in Language and Communication at the College of Medicine