Monday, June 22, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Malawi

For the third week in a row, we're exploring the linguistic diversity of an African country. Last week we investigated the languages of Niger, and today we're moving southeast to the tiny nation of Malawi, one of the smallest countries on the continent.

The Official Languages

Lake Malawi, which covers nearly a third of the country's area.
The official languages of Malawi are English, which remains important due to its history as a British colony, and Chichewa, an indigenous language also known as Chewa or Nyanja. Chichewa is the most spoken language in Malawi, where it is the native language of about half of the country's population. English, on the other hand, is more often used as a second language, particularly in areas such as government and media.

Other Languages

Unlike many other African countries, Malawi's linguistic landscape doesn't feature hundreds of languages. In fact, Ethnologue lists just 16 languages in Malawi, many of which have very few speakers, which is why today's country profile is shorter than usual. A few of the most notable languages include Tumbuka, Yao, Malawi Lomwe, Nyakyusa-Ngonde, and Malawi Sena, all of which are Bantu languages.

The Tumbuka and Yao languages both boast over 2 million native speakers, followed by Malawi Lomwe with 850,000 speakers, which is spoken in southeastern Malawi. In northern Malawi, the Nyakyusa-Ngonde language is used by around 300,000 people, while Malawi Sena is spoken by a similar percentage of the population in southern Malawi. There are also small numbers of Malawians who speak Afrikaans and Zulu, two important languages in nearby South Africa.