Problems for Learners of ESL in Malawi I have been living in Malawi for the


I have been living in Malawi for the past several years, and, though I am definitely far from being an expert on any of the subjects mentioned here, I would like to share a few of my observations on the difficulties that Malawian students of English as a second language may encounter. Of course, these difficulties vary in intensity among the different sectors of the population, even to the point that, for some, one or more of these do not apply at all. Areas we can consider include social, educational, and economic challenges.

One of the struggles that Malawian students can face from the social side is the fact that Chichewa is unofficially the 'national' language even though English pretends to hold that position. English is taught in all the schools, but if you just casually step in the door anywhere from a government office to a hospital you will hear Chichewa being used as the medium of communication. True, to get a job and hold their posts in these places they have to 'know' English, but English spoken between Malawians is minimal. Employers and the government expect everyone to 'know' English by the end of their secondary level schooling, but the social environment in which most people find themselves fights against the use of English in everyday life. English language acquisition is tough enough in a country where English is freely spoken, but in a place where that language is almost relegated to the position of a 'dead' language, the difficulty is greatly aggravated.

The next bar in the way of a Malawian who wants to learn English is the educational environment itself. True, the Ministry of Education has made huge strides in the past decades making education available to a greater number of students, but, unfortunately, there seems to be a sure decline in the quality of that education. The study of English has suffered along with all the other subjects.

Obviously, we can look at the lack of resources that the teachers and students suffer under. The schools are understaffed, the teachers are underpaid, the libraries are under-equipped, and, as a result, the students are under-taught! Recently, a group from our church made a research trip to Mchisi Island, an island in nearby Lake Chilwa, with an alleged population of 4,000. Our group found that the only primary level school on the island had only seven teachers for about five hundred students! That does not make for quality teaching! Due to understaffing, teachers can even be put in positions that they do not fully qualify for, further degrading the quality of education they offer to the students. A very significant factor in learning English for Malawian students is poverty. Since the beginning of the last presidential administration, education at the primary level has been offered freely through government schools; that has gone a long way in improving the overall educational level of society. But, still, even in primary schools, there are many necessities that the government cannot provide, such as school uniforms, stationery and books. This means that, even at the primary level, poorer students still struggle. Secondary schools, where English is really focused on in a serious way, all require school fees. Personally, I know a lot of young people whose English would probably be a lot better if they had had the resources to go to a quality secondary school. Those who are able to 'scrounge' up the school fees often fail to afford it all at once and thus spend a lot of valuable time 'hunting for funds' instead of studying.

The AIDS endemic and the subsequent orphan crisis in Malawi are important socioeconomic factors that cannot be ignored either. According to a UNRISD research project, this crisis is affecting Malawi's educational situation in significant ways. The sickness and death of parents and guardians due to AIDS means a drop in resources for both essential primary school needs as well as school fees for secondary level students. Besides that, with this significant blow to the productive sector of the community, more and more students are withdrawing from schools to engage in supporting their younger siblings and older relatives. Another thing the article mentioned was the fact that the teaching profession in particular is being hard hit by this plague'AIDS is claimed to be the major cause of death for teachers, meaning an intensification of the problem of understaffing! This really is a serious issue!

So, from the few examples I have given, you can see that, for Malawian students, the boulders in the road to a high quality English education are significant. Both students and teachers alike should not let this daunt their courage, however, for with the help of God, we can overcome the barriers and help the young people of Malawi to be competent leaders for the future through a competent grasp of the English language!

'Mchisi Island', private research document, June 2006.

Adaptive Strategies and Coping Mechanisms of Families and Communities Affected by HIV/AIDS in Malawi, Alister C. Munthali, Department of Anthropology, Rhodes University, Grahamstown 6140, South Africa, Draft paper prepared for the UNRISD project HIV/AIDS and Development, March 2002