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BLANTYRE, Mar 18 2010 (IPS) - The thickest book on secondary school teacher Hellen Ndalama’s desk is her indigenous language dictionary. It is also her most-used book.
With 35,000 entries, the new book which translates Chichewa to English (CE) and English to Chichewa (EC) is the first comprehensive dictionary of its kind in Malawi. It is new on the shelves of Malawi’s book stores and was published last year.
The 730-paged dictionary is a personal copy but it is not for Ndalama’s use alone. If it is not with her, she said, it is being exchanged among the teachers at her school and even among the learners in her class.
“It is the most used book that I have on this desk. It is the only copy that we have at the school at the moment while we wait for the school to purchase its own. It is also richer in content than the previous dictionaries,” Ndalama told IPS.
English is widely spoken in Malawi owing to the country’s British colonial past, and it is the language of official communication. But Chichewa is spoken by all ethnic groups in the country. Government declared Chichewa (also known as Chinyanja) a national language in 1968.
The new CE-EC dictionary traces its origin to 1997 when it began as a small personal note of vocabulary to assist Paas, an expatriate Theology lecturer, in learning the country’s most used language, Chichewa.
New to Malawi where he was seconded to the Church of Central African Presbyterian, Paas experienced what he calls “a crisis of communication” between himself and Malawians because of the absence of a dictionary.
All that was available at that time were a limited number of student guides that did not have a wide variety of words. Also, there were errors in the interpretation of some words and expressions. This hindered his efforts to learn the language of his host country, Paas says.
But it is not just foreigners who are affected. Paas says the lack of ability to easily translate words and meanings from Chichewa to English and from English to Chichewa also affects all situations of learning and communication. It affects the poor, the illiterate, orphans and the sick, because it bars their social mobility and emancipation.
But now you can flip through the dictionary and learn that the Chichewa word for notebook is kabuku kolembera; that madona ndi mabwana means ‘ladies and gentleman’ and monga mwa chikhalidwe chathu means ‘according to our tradition’.
Paas believes that for one to really understand the important things in life, it should be translated into a tongue that is familiar to one’s own culture and psychology.
“It (Chichewa) does for the nucleus of society what English cannot do, (that is), it bridges the gap of basic communication, combating illiteracy, promoting cultural self-confidence, igniting economical activity, and especially expanding knowledge,” Paas says.
To educate himself in the language of his host country, Paas started to collect Chichewa words and he would circulate the list to his learners and colleagues. In turn the students and colleagues assisted with expanding and refining the list with their own additions and recommendations.
The list was finally compiled into a dictionary that has six editions.
Ndalama has used these previous editions in her English language lessons. She says they were useful books, especially because Malawi did not have other Chichewa-English reference books with substantial content and word diversity.
Paas’ efforts on Chichewa-English lexicography succeed other attempts that started in the 19th century when the first missionaries in Malawi collected Chichewa words to assist them in teaching Malawians their faith.
However, the collections were no more than a list of basic words and therefore limited in its usefulness.
A more comprehensive book was published in 2000 when the Centre for Language Studies at the University of Malawi produced a 366-paged Chichewa-only dictionary. Nevertheless, because of its monolingual nature, this dictionary fell short of expectations.
This is why Paas’ dictionary is enjoying such acclaim.
Ndalama, who has taught English for 12 years, has been using Paas’ CE and EC dictionaries to explain to her learners the meanings and definitions of some words encountered during her lessons.
“We grow up speaking Chichewa and when we meet an English word, it is sometimes difficult to have a clear explanation for it. So, I often consulted the EC dictionary where I could have the English word with its Chichewa meaning. Then I would construct a meaningful English interpretation out of that,” she said.
However, Ndalama discovered later that the books had errors in translations and did not contain some words.
She recalled how one day, while going through a comprehension passage in Form 1, a learner asked her the meaning of the word “allergy” which was in the passage.
“I was taken by surprise. I had an idea of what it was but I could not give a precise and clear definition that my students could grasp easily,” she said.
She picked up her EC dictionary but when she consulted it, she realised the book did not have the word. She had to use her Oxford Advanced English Dictionary to explain the word. She is convinced she would have explained it better if the word was available in her EC dictionary.
Andrew Goodson, a Classics teacher at the Kamuzu Academy, says that the previous CE-EC dictionaries had “thousands of errors”.
In his letter dated March 2008 to Paas, Goodison said the dictionaries contained words that were non-existent such as “snoringly”. They had problematic translations and errors in English idioms and in spellings such as “crasp” instead of “clasp”.
They also omitted useful words such as “probably”, “definitely”, “should”, “nor”, and “some”.
In compiling the new CE-EC dictionary, Paas led a team which assisted by adding to the contents and making corrections.
Apart from being sold at bookshops, the book is available at non-governmental institutions and from individuals. Money from the sales will fund the next print but direct sponsoring is still the main source of financing for the dictionary project, Paas says.
In the preface of the dictionary, Professor Pascal Kishindo, director of the Centre for Language Studies, says the new dictionary has proceeded from a well-managed interaction between tradition and innovation to a diverse dictionary of words.
Kishindo notes that although the book has decreased margins and font size to accommodate a combination of the previous CE and EC editions, the compression has not compromised the quality of the dictionary.
“The user who wishes to communicate and express himself or herself in English will find clear and detailed treatment of all the basic words with numerous indicators pointing to the appropriate translations, and assisting him/her to use the language correctly,” says Kishindo, who is also a Linguistics lecturer at the University of Malawi.
Peg Williams is a Canadian volunteer working with a local youth organisation based in the rural town centre of Luchenza in southern Malawi.
Her work includes educating young people on HIV/AIDS. She told IPS that when she came to Malawi in January, the first thing she bought was the dictionary to help her learn the local language.
“I am also trying to learn more with the help of Malawians that I am working with. I need to learn the language because I think my work will have an impact if I communicate with young people in the language that they are used to and which they can easily understand,” she said.
With the help of the dictionary, she has learnt to use the Chichewa versions for “sex”, “sexually transmitted diseases”, “paedophilia”, “orgasm”, “penis”, “counselling” and other related words and expressions useful in her work.
A senior education methods advisor in the ministry of education says the book will help with the implementation of the new primary school curriculum in Malawi.
A review of the curriculum in 2003 noted that learners in junior primary school had problems grasping concepts in English. This was because students are initially taught in Chichewa, but as they move to senior primary school learners are taught in English.
The reviewers recommended the CE-EC dictionary as one way of addressing the problem. The education ministry hopes that the new dictionary will aid learners with their studies.
Speaking to IPS, the Netherlands-based Paas says the dictionary is a tool not only for students and teachers but also for Africans, expatriates, foreign workers, tourists and those dealing with English and Chichewa at a scientific, scholarly and religious level.
Paas says his deepest motivation for the project is a spiritual one. Paas says he is convinced that the human heart needs its mother tongue to be really touched by religion.
Ndalama thinks the new dictionary has the capacity to reduce the language barrier between users of Chichewa and English.
But her criticism of the dictionary is that it lacks the phonetic pronunciations for the words.
“I have noticed that the words in the new dictionary do not have their phonetic descriptions. In my view, being able to pronounce the words helps in learning the language,” she said.
Paas is working on the second edition to be printed next year.
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