There are 16 languages listed for Malawi, all of which are living (Lewis et al, 2013). English is the official language, although it is only spoken in major cities, often as a second language. Chichewa is spoken by upwards of 70% of the population as either a first or second language, making it the lingua franca (Leclerc, 2012).
Due to the strong linkage in Malawi between language and ethnic groups, “indigenous languages are not only used to communicate messages but they are also strong indicators of people’s ethnic identities” (Matiki, 2009, p. 536). This ethnolinguistic link can be so strong that, in some instances, “a member of a particular ethnic group may claim to speak a language that is associated with his or her ethnic group even though s/he has no native fluency in the language” (ibid, p. 537).
Despite this strong devotion to ethnic groups and their corresponding indigenous languages, many Malawians are multilingual. In particular, those who migrate from rural to urban areas are “socially compelled to integrate by learning the dominant language of the area” (ibid). As a result, children who grow up in these urban centers are at risk of losing their indigenous language. This happens when children do not have sufficient exposure to their parents’ languages, thus fostering an environment in which only the dominant language of the city is spoken.
English remains the language of instruction through all years of schooling. There have been efforts to develop bi/multilingual programs, but none have been successfully implemented. Kamwendo (2008) attributes this lack of implementation to the following factors: lack of accurate and adequate sociolinguistic data, inadequate human and material resources, missed and/or underutilized opportunities, a lukewarm approach on the part of the MoE, frequent changes of personnel at the MoE, ill-prepared officials, and inadequate sensitization and publicity.