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University of Malawi fears for language in ethnic groups

UNIVERSITY of Malawi (Unima)’s professor of linguistics, Edrinnie Elizabeth Lora-Kayambazinthu, has said the family unit holds the key to the sustenance of language in ethnic groups, observing that the failure of one generation to transfer its language to the next generation has contributed to the death of languages such as Ngoni.

Kayambazinthu said this on Friday as part of Unima’s 21st and 22nd Inaugural Lectures by professors Wapulumuka Oliver Mulwafu and Kayambazinthu, respectively, at Chancellor College in Zomba. In her lecture, titled ‘Language Maintenance and Language Shift in Malawi:

The Family’s Role’, Kayambazinthu observed that some world languages were at risk of disappearing. She said half of the world’s languages may disappear in the next 100 years.

“Language embodies cultural values and philosophical insights into people’s lives. It is, therefore, our right and constitution and the family has a unique role and obligation to pass on language to their children. Let us be proud of our languages,” said Kayambazinthu, observing that language plays a crucial role in promoting people’s cultural identity and, in some cases, spiritual wellbeing.

According to Kayambazinthu, a number of stages mark steps in language development or decline, culminating in terms such as language endangerment— which happens when a language is not being passed on in the family—language maintenance (which refers to a situation where a group of people continues to use their language), and language shift (referring to a scenario where a group of people has stopped using their language).  Kayambazinthu observed that while 32 percent and 30.1 percent of the world’s languages were spoken in Asia and Africa, respectively, it was surprising that it was Europe, where 4 percent of the world’s languages are spoken, that is dominating the language sphere.

“Language maintenance and language shift are at work in Malawi,” she said.  She observed that the issue of language shift is apparent in the way the Ngoni language has been swallowed up by other languages, notably Tumbuka and Chichewa, despite the Ngoni being one of the dominant ethnic groups when they moved into Malawi. “This (the relative death) is because the Ngonis married a number of women from different tribes but the Ngoni men did not have time to promote the use of their language in the family. So, the women taught the children their first languages. Consequently, there was no transfer of language from one Ngoni generation to another,” said Kayambazinthu.

Kayambazinthu said the Lomwes also faced a similar predicament, this time through attitude.

“When the Lomwes, who were the last ethnic group to enter Malawi, were speaking their language, others were laughing at them and they started feeling that their language was inferior. Because of their attitude towards their language, they started speaking other languages and this endangered their language,” said Kayambazinthu.

In his remarks, Deputy Education Minister, Vincent Ghambi, said the government attaches great significance to higher education, hence its appreciation of the role universities play in creating new knowledge through research.

On her part, Professor Moira Chimombo, who was the guest of honour, commendedthe role of the university in research and said it was up to family units in Malawi to take heed of Kayambazinthu’s warning and start transferring their languages to their children.

“It is up to Malawians to take heed of what the professors have said. Prof Kayambazinthu’s lecture, for example, is more less personal because it requires individuals to act on her research findings. Policy makers can, of course, play a role but the individuals are the ones who transfer knowledge on language,” said Chimombo.

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