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To Be in the World, Malawi Must Speak the Languages of the World

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

For a few Malawians, it is not too astonishing to hear that the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) offers a Chichewa program at the distinguished institution’s Center for African Studies. At this center, more African languages are taught, among which are Xhosa, Swahili and Amharic. The fact that the language is offered at the university at all is symbolic enough of the presence of Malawians who’re working to advance the language training for the center. The recipients of such uncommon enlightenment are a cadre of not so likely subjects, non-Malawians.

Top Universities, a ranking site in the United States, places UC Berkeley at number 14 in the US and 27 in the world for 2018 university rankings. That should help with perspective.

Why Americans would take the trouble to learn Chichewa transcends the luxury to learn a language and reveals more strategic reasons in international relations. There seems to be very little to justify even an exotic need by foreign nationals who will perhaps ever visit for tourism and leave without ever having attempted a word in the vernacular during their stay. For those on longer-term sojourns, for duty or business missions, the prevalence of English across every aspect of business life does not help in justifying teaching our local languages to visitors from beyond the borders. And so, in a large way, language training across the country’s education system is consequently a function of the need to satisfy other requirements.

The teaching of Chichewa in our local schools is eventually reinforced by the need to equip our Chichewa teachers, who will instruct a small proportion of the 4.6 million pupils that will ever make it through secondary school (2017 statistics). But it also facilitates translation of the foreign languages pasted on development goods and services, i.e., development aid, for our compatriots in less fortunate circumstances. Our view of the language training is usually inward-looking.

As a result of our timidity to aggressively learn diverse languages, our foreign missions, for example, will conspicuously locate in duty stations where the most comfortable medium of exchange is already the English language we have learned since early schooling. And we will insist to transact only in this language even when multi-lingual forums where certain important dialogues take place may mean we have to rely on an interpreter. Where a lucrative deal beckons on condition of our engagement in another language, our negotiators falter, falling short of wooing appropriate and adequate support for our country’s businesses and government.

While the negotiation of development support and business deals appear strategic enough to forewarn the opportunity cost of not speaking world languages, this website believes there are more strategic reasons why some developed countries still prioritize the learning of languages as insignificant on the world stage as Chichewa. There is more to the rationale behind making ostensibly weak languages a strong part of the intelligence fabric of more advanced nations.

Of course, the importance of cultural awareness is recognized as instrumental in the delivery of development programs in countries where donor countries work, such as in Malawi. It enables foreign monies to go farther than Malawians have been known to implement. Our own fiascos to develop ourselves have been quite a telling story, which have exposed how effective it is for donors to engage directly where the need exists, no matter how remote. Think about how naturalized foreign volunteers appear in our most remote villages when on tour of duty. Or about that once-potent Ndimakukonda by Kohei Yamada, a Japanese musician who not only sang in Chichewa but mesmerized his local audience by stringing in the local instrumentation at the tune that tickles the Malawian soul just right.

Such a sight is rare among Malawians living in the non-English-speaking world. Even when their immigration status is in good order. And it is speaking of our ability to live in foreign countries through regular channels that our international counterparts receiving Malawians in their societies may find it useful to understand the contours of languages as Chichewa. Even in predominantly English-speaking countries, translation services have come in handy when dealing with non-speakers or handling official documentation that’s scripted in foreign languages.

As the paranoia around the world continues to grow on international migration and the real fear posed by international crimes, engaging suspects of law offences as well as those desperate to apply for various migration options will be more effective in the requesters’ easiest-accessible language. It helps that where investigations are conducted in contexts where possible violations are conducted in a foreign language that there is ability by local authorities to capture conversations and understand easily what individuals concerned are up to. It is cheaper to have officials trained in these languages in executing such activities for countries with complex administrative systems.

Certain languages must be a basic offering to our young as they embark on education. This should not be considered a luxury. For more effective trade, it would really help if we added Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Japanese and Spanish to our public schooling curricula, among many others. A Scandinavian language would be another pertinent addition. And Portuguese would not be a terrible option either, considering the possibilities in collaborations with Brazil. Yet we have a representational office which is easy to bet has perhaps never had a Portuguese-speaking Ambassador. It is doubtful that Mr. Bowler, who occupies the office today, was chosen on his fluency of the language. While these proposed languages may not be completely adequate to facilitate interactions with more multi-lingual partners such as India, learning one of their major languages is a good start and a great show of confidence on our part.

As it is commonly known, it is hard to teach an old soul a new language, or anything for that matter. Yet, to strategically position ourselves as a country ready for a dynamic future, we must ensure that our uptake of foreign languages is intensified as an important strategic move. The cheapest and most painless option is to introduce foreign languages where it’s easiest to train: on the minds of the young, whose brains are like sponges that absorb new knowledge with a vengeance.

This means our teaching of language trainers needs very astute but deliberate attempts to inculcate world languages as a challenge for tertiary education institutions, and as an integral part of the national development planning (the MGDS III) as well as a deliverable for the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

Doing this will not only be useful for our self-serving interests in global trade and development but will also reap many benefits that programs such as those offered by UC Berkeley aim to achieve.


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