When I reached my site, I was surprised to see that the majority of the people do not speak Chichewa, the most common Malawian language. It’s not that I wasn’t told this initially, but I thought to myself that there is no way a Malawian cannot speak or understand Chichewa. However, since this deemed true, it meant that I needed to put more effort into learning the Chitumbuka language (the common language of Northern Malawi).
I found out quite quickly that it was easy to understand Chitumbuka having a Chitonga background myself, and that these languages share many words and expressions. However, with that being the case, responding in grammatically correct Chitumbuka was still a challenge. Needless to say, many people would laugh every time I attempted to converse in Chitumbuka. I asked a collegue why they laughed at me and she told me my Chitumbuka sounds funny. Some correct words, but still sounds funny.
For the first time in my life, I experienced language as a barrier to communication. People talk fluent Chitumbuka in meetings and expected me to reply in the same spirit and with the same speed. For some reason, I thought about the CorpsAfrica/Malawi Exchange Volunteers. I now understood why they would get frustrated by us Malawian Volunteers during our pre-service training whenever we conversed in Chichewa in our sessions. But unlike them, I was even more frustrated since I could understand everything that people said, but I failed to give back my intended response. I asked my friend, an Exchange Volunteer how he dealt with the language challenge. He told me that the first thing is not to get frustrated, but to listen, learn new words, and speak, speak and speak. This turned out to be the best advice I got around this issue. From then on, I spoke more and people laughed more and some even corrected my accent and grammar. When people laughed, I laughed too and they taught me more Chitumbuka words.
After three months, I could speak Chitumbuka well and I could get comments on how my Chitumbuka has greatly improved. I miss speaking Chitonga (the language spoken in Nkhata Bay District), which is faster, and most words are cut short throughout conversations. While on the other hand, all the words must be fully said in Chitumbuka, no short cuts. In spite of that, I love this language. It is a unique and rich language and it turned out to be the fourth language I can speak fluently. This being the second largest language spoken in Malawi after Chichewa, it is a valuable asset to have for easy communication with people from northern Malawi.
I am still improving my skills in speaking the Chitumbuka language and it’s always a good feeling discussing with the community members in a language they understand best. My journey on learning a new language continues.