English is the official language of Malawi, and the national language is Chichewa which is spoken especially in the Southern and Central regions. In the north, the most widely spoken language is Chitumbuka. There are many other linguistic groups in the country, some of the more important being Yao, Ngoni and Nyanja.
Chichewa, the national language, is classified as a Bantu language, a linguistic group that had its origin in the Congo Basin about 2,000 years ago, and which now includes practically every language spoken in sub-equatorial Africa, including all 40 indigenous to Malawi. Bantu languages share a common pronunciation and grammar, and many have closely related vocabularies – if you speak any other Bantu language such as Swahili, Shona and Zulu, you will recognize many similar and identical words in Chichewa.
Chichewa pronunciation patterns are generally quite predictable, even if not so easy for English speakers.
Chichewa uses the five vowels a, e, i, o and u. One of the things you will have to guard against is the diphthong glide that we use on most of our English vowels. All vowels in Chichewa should be pronounced as simple, single vowels, without the gliding tendencies of English vowel pronunciation. Consonants generally have a similar sound to their English equivalent, though ‘j’ is always pronounced as ‘dj’; ‘ch’ is far softer than the English ‘ch’; ‘ph’ is pronounced as a breathy ‘p’ as opposed to an ‘f’, and ‘r’ is often interchangeable with ‘l’.
English in Malawi
English is the official language of education, and many urban Malawians speak it with great fluency. Even in rural areas, you’ll seldom encounter the linguistic communication barriers you might in other African countries. Literacy rates have improved in recent years and now stands at 65 per cent. This has resulted in English being even more widespread.