Language Primer: Chichewa


Even the least polyglot visitor to Malawi will fall for the charms of Chichewa. Indeed, as the country’s most widely known language there’s no escaping it. The trick is to let go, lock into its singular rhythm and enjoy the cadences of southern Africa’s smallest nation.

Also known as Nyanja, it’s another example of the Bantu langauge family. Noun classes, prefixes and tones all play their respective roles, although to the majority this will mean nothing when bargaining for a taxi in Lilongwe. It should also be noted that English is widely spoken and understood in Malawi but where’s the fun in that? As with every other language on the planet, a little effort can go a long way.

In short, subtlety and dynamics are the cornerstones of Chichewa. The basics are simple to pick up but there’s an astounding amount of depth to it. Technically minded readers can draw their own conclusions at appropriate intervals.

Mount Mulanje, Malawi

Hot centre

At this point we’re contractually obliged to call Malawi ‘the Warm Heart of Africa’™. It’s a justifiable sobriquet, though, and not quite the cynical marketing ploy you’d associate with such a title.

The welcome in Malawi is as genuine as is it infectious. Smiles are warm and grins toothy. Conversations with strangers flow. Compliment their nose and see what kind of doors are opened.

Underlying it all is Chichewa. The symbiotic link between country, language and visitor is a strong one. Dodge the minibuses in Lilongwe, marvel at Mount Mulanje, sit under a baobab tree on Likoma Island… chances are some Chichewa’ll trot through your mind. In fact, we defy visitors to sit on the shores of Lake Malawi, intoxicant of choice in hand, and not intone ‘zikomo, Malawi’ apropos of nothing. The Vibe™ is everything and it’s impossible to ignore.

(Malawi Editor: The majority of this story carries no depth whatsoever. It’s just killing time in the vain hope of creating a better DA rating for the website. Nobody reads this stuff anyway so we could say what we want safe in the knowledge it’ll have no impact whatsoever. That said, this primer was garnered from a recent trip to Malawi. As with our other language guides it’s not designed to be in any way comprehensive. We’re not experts and have never claimed to be. Rather, the goal is to impart a little local flavour. If that somehow helps then we’ve done a good thing.)

(Legal Editor: Is it copyright theft if you rip off your own material?)

Unleash the Chichewa

(Legal Editor: Apparently not.)

Hello – Wa Wa

How are you? – Mulibanje

I’m fine – Ndilibweno kayainu

Thank you – Zikomo

Goodbye – Tionana

Please – Chonde

What’s your name? – Dzina lanu ndindani?

My name is… – Dzina langa ndi…

Where you go? – Mchoka kuti?

I don’t know – Sindikudziwa

I go to – Ku mchoka/Muka peta kuti

Where is…? – Ali kuti…?

Over there – Apo

How far is…? – Kutali kwake

How long is…? – Udali wotalika bwanji…?

Airport – Ndege

Hotel – Hotelo

Restaurant – Malo odyera

Bar – Bala

This is… – Izi ndizo…

Cheap – Zotsika mtengo

Expensive – Mtengo wapatuli

Too – Nawonso

Very – Kwambiri

Do you have…? – Kodi mulindi…?

I want/would like – Ndikufuna

Beer – Mowa

Water – Madzi

Cigarettes – Ndudu

Lighter – Kuwala

Food – Chakudya

Drink – Kumwa

Chicken – Nkhuku

Fish – Nsomba

Rice – Mpunga

What’s the score? – Zigoli zake zili motani?

I like your nose – Uli ndi mpuno yabweno

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Language Primer: Enahara


For those whose tastes extend to the linguistic Mozambique Island delivers its own dialectic morsel: Enahara. This vernacular – derived from Mahkuwa, the most widely spoken indigenous language in the country – is prevalent in Nampula province and centres on the nation’s former capital.

Enahara is a coastal dialect which is spoken by some 460,000 people. However, the island is a small place and clearly not home to so many speakers, but still the link is a symbiotic one. To hear it spoken is to be transported to the wide open Rua dos Combatentes and its glorious sea views. In the distance Fort Sao Sebastiao maintains its vigil from the island’s north as its sibilant counterpart, Cobra Island, solemnly guards the southern tip. All around the tropical heat casts a delightful shimmer as Ilha’s fragrant, storied past reveals itself.

(Language Editor: Our Xangana guide should prove useful too.)

Mozambique Island

African History

More than a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this former centre of trade is an African icon. Goan, Arabic, Swahili, Portuguese and French influences have left their indelible mark. Furthermore, the spirits left in their wake can be felt in the characterful colonial buildings, picturesque mosques and hoving churches. The atmosphere is at once crumbling and bucolic. A cool breeze, gently aiding the dhow fishing boats as they ebb in the shallow seas, creates a bubble through which time inexorably passes, but ever so slowly.

It is here the dialect comes to the fore. The easy rhythm reflects its island setting and brings with it a sense of timelessness. Listen to the lilt of Enahara and soak up centuries of an African landmark’s sun-baked history.

(Mozambique Editor: As with our Xangana primer, we won’t pretend it’s anywhere definitive. It isn’t, and it’s probably riddled with holes. However, it is the result of exploring this charming Mozambican island and trying to understand it as much as we can. That said, if anybody gets any help from it then hallelujah, we’ve done something right.)

Unleash the Enahara

I – Miano

You – Vano

He/she/it – Ala

I’m fine – Salam

Thank you – Koshukuru

Goodbye – Korua

What’s your name? – Onasi mia pani?

My name is – Nzinanakalti

Nice to meet you – Eukitzivela/Oodsuwela

Good morning – Mosheleliwa

Good afternoon – Mashkomulu

Good evening – Mokeleliwa

How much? – Enhalakavi?

Yes – Ayo

No – Nada

Sorry – Okiswamiki

Bald – Ntari

I am bald – Miano kiana ntari

I like to learn – Miano okisivela otsuwela

I like your nose – Miano okisivela epulau

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Language Primer: Xangana/Shangana/Changana



As visitors to Maputo will attest, it’s useful to know some Xangana/Shangana/Changana. A colourful language and one of Mozambique’s indigenous Bantu tongues, it seems to encapsulate its mother city. The beat is rhythmic and the pulse smooth, held together by a thin veneer of chaos. Unlike Portuguese – the country’s accepted lingua franca – which writhes as though borne of smoke, Xangana is an altogether bouncier option. It’s also surprisingly easy to pick up.

Its usefulness stems not from any sense of necessity. Mozambique is, after all, a multilingual country and its capital city is no different. A smidgen of English with a smattering of Portuguese should more than suffice for those passing through.

No, where Xangana excels is its barrier-breaking. Try deploying a few phrases hither and thither. Like countless other places, it opens most unexpected doors and fosters a keener understanding of one’s surroundings. It’s also a polite thing to do. The key to travel is making the effort and at least attempting to pick up the vernacular is no exception.

‘Understand the language,’ no-one ever said, ‘to understand the heart.’ While we don’t necessarily agree with this invisible aphorism, we should like to expand on it. Simply put, Xangana is the key to unlocking the brightest of smiles in Mozambique’s southern citadel.

(Transparency Editor: At this point, we’d be remiss to class this list as ‘definitive’. It’s really not. We gleaned it from an afternoon exploring Maputo and present it as is, inevitable mistakes included)


I – Mina

You – Wena

He/she/it – Yena

We – Gina

You (pl.) – Wona


Yes – Ina

No – Hum-mh

Hello – Onjane

You! – Hawen! (greeting)

Good morning – Dzixile (‘di-chi-li’)

Good afternoon – Inlekani

Goodbye – Hambanini / Nofomba

Thank you – Kanimambu

How are you? – U bom?

I’m ok – Ni bom

I’m not ok – A ni bom

What’s your name? – Mane vitou dzaku/sago?

My name is (Tom) – Vitou dzanga hi (Tom)

Nice to meet you – Ne no shile

You not buy? – Hou chave?

I’m just looking – No la vise


I like your nose – Mina nakukuna saiy





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Bahasa Indonesian Primer: Numbers and Basic Transactions

bahasa kamus

bahasa kamus

Bahasa Indonesian is a deceptively simple language. With a nice, friendly bounce, it is easy to learn the basics. Certainly, within a few days, most visitors will feel confident enough to let loose a few words here and there. Such is the friendly atmosphere of the country, even non-polyglots can delve into its linguistic waters.

Of course, they may stumble and fall, but the warm Indonesian smile will furnish with them enough verve not to give up. It’s an energising sensation, to pick up another tongue, and with 17,000 islands to choose from, there’s plenty of chance for conversation practice across the country.

However, it is also an intricate language, replete with hundreds of dialects. Balinese, Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese… for a country so rich in history and heritage it’s somehow fitting to have so many vernaculars in use. Someone somewhere once said it can take many lifetimes to truly appreciate everything Indonesia offers, such are its anthropological, social and cultural delights. Mastering Bahasa is no exception.

Deploy the Bahasa

However, this doesn’t help when trying to buy a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of water. What matters are numbers and cold, hard words. Bahasa, for all its wonderful qualities, can be a quick language to hear. Indeed, when spoken full throttle it displays all the rhythmic qualities of a machine gun. It’s extremely satisfying to hear but one could easily drown in a sea of incomprehension.

The key, of course, is practice. Below are some basic aids to conducting transactions in Bahasa. There’s some numbers and some likely questions. It’s not a comprehensive list but like anything, a little effort can go a long way. Be confident, let the words sink in and don’t be afraid. Indonesians are generally very helpful and gracious and will certainly help out if they sense you’re struggling. Kamu siap?*



(NB: The pattern’s easy enough to work out)

One – Satu

Two – Dua

Three – Tiga

Four – Empat

Five – Lima

Six – Enam

Seven- Tujuh

Eight – Delapan

Nine – Sembilan

Ten – Sepuluh

Eleven – Sebelas

Twelve – Duabelas

Thirteen –Tigabelas

Fourteen – Empatbelas

Fifteen – Limabelas

Sixteen – Enambelas

Seventeen – Tujuhbelas

Eighteen – Delapanbelas

Nineteen – Sembilanbelas

Twenty – Duapuluh

Twenty one – Duapuluhdua

Thirty – Tigapuluh (and so on until 90)

Hundred – Seratus

Two hundred – Duaratus

One thousand – Seribu

Two thousand – Dua ribu

Ten thousand – Sepuluh ribu

Twenty thousand – Duapuluhribu

Million – Juta


Questions and Phrases / Pertanyaan dan Frasa

What is the price? – Berapa harga?

How many? – Berapa banyak?

How many do you want? – Mau berapa banyak?

How much? – Berapa/Berapa ini/Berapa harganya?

I want/would like… – Saya ingin…

Do you have…? – Apakah kamu punya…? / Punyai…?

Where is…? – Dimana…?

It’s too expensive – Itu terlalu mahal

Cheap – Murah


Everyday Stuff – Barang Sehari-hari

Water – Air

Food – Makanan

Drink – Minum

Cigarettes – Rokok

Ticket – Tiket

Fare – Tarif

Room – Kamar

Bed – Tempat tidur


*Are you ready?

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Language Primer: Madurese

madurese language


A Madurese trait, it would seem, is to stay hidden in plain sight. For an island in such a central location – a couple of hours to Surabaya’s north and within striking distance of Bali – it remains an enigmatic locale. The tourism trade is mostly non-existent and the few who do manage to make it there tend to congregate solely for the annual bull races. Mostly, mention of Madura is met with a shrug and a non-committal shake of the head. Not that the fiercely independent Madurese seem to mind all that much.

Historically there have been feuds with Java and Kalimantan, resulting in bloodshed, and it still seems even today there is a lingering mutual resentment. Accusations of coarseness and pigheadedness are met with derision; it soon becomes clear how much pride the Madurese take in their fang-shaped island. It’s also very obvious how little they care for their neighbours’ opinions.

Wordy welcome

Unsurprisingly, then, this strong sense of identity extends to Madura’s indigenous language. Madurese is one of Indonesia’s 300 different native dialects. Should an outsider attempt speaking it they’ll initially encounter confusion, then shock and the smiling disbelief. And then another phrase or two; with so few resources available the best way to learn Madurese is to absorb it. Happily, the islanders are more than happy to share.

For all its stubborn reputation Madura is also incredibly friendly. Visitors will find people simply want to talk to them and, should they open up, will soon be equipped with the skeleton of a new vocabulary. This list, by no means complete, is an example of that. Gleaned on a bus journey between Bangkalan and Sumenep it’s evidence of not only the warm welcome in store but also, perhaps, a sign that Madura is more than happy to reveal itself when the time is right.

(Language Editor: Although Bahasa is widely spoken across Madura it’s useful to know a few indigenous words. Whilst this is by no means a comprehensive list, if you want to know the Madurese for ‘bald’ look no further.)

Thank you – Sakalangkong

No problem – Depadeh (artinya)

Excuse me (seeking help) – Ta’ langkong/takalong (similar to ‘permisi’ in Bahasa)

Please (greeting) – Tore lenggi

I want… – Kaule terro

Ask – Atanya ah

Where is… – Edimah…

Assassination Classroom – Kelas ghebei mate e oreng*

Bald – Bhutak

Tall – Tengghi

*No, us neither

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Language Primer: Tetun

Tetun, Timor Leste

Watabo beach

Whilst Tetun is not renowned as a major player in the international language stakes, it is symbolic of its mother country, Timor Leste. As one of two official languages in the former Indonesian province – along with Portuguese – it can represent something of a culture shock. It bristles with a kinetic rhythm and can be totally bewildering to any new arrivals; a packed bemo ride around Dili, for instance, with three or four loud conversations happening at once will prove to be a trying experience.

However, once visitors have settled down and locked into the country’s rhythm, the language itself is easy enough to pick up. Certainly those familiar with Portuguese should have no problems. Timor was a colony of Portugal and while the physical remnants of that time are obvious – in terms of architecture, food and street names, for example –  so too is Tetun a cultural vestige of the former occupiers. (Streber Editor: Is that clunky? Let us know in the comments below.)

Since East Timor is not a widely travelled country, with the majority of foreigners living there in NGO, charity or teaching guises, it can be presumed a lot of visitors will be familiar with next-door Indonesia and, by extension, Bahasa. The Indonesian language is also spoken in Dili and should be understood by a lot of people, although this is not applicable everywhere; there are many dialects spread around the country. Heading further away from the capital will increase the need to use even the most basic Tetun.

It could be said that Tetun reflects the youth of Timor, which gained independence from Indonesia in 1999 and became a sovereign state in 2002. The country is still finding its feet after the chaotic and violent parting from its neighbour and there is some confusion about the status of the official language. Some are calling for Portuguese, others want to keep Tetun. It is somehow fitting that a country still in flux should have a language with such a disparate etymology.

This list is by no means definitive but it hopefully gives a flavour of Tetun. It was gleaned from conversations around the country and offers an enlightening glimpse into this most intriguing of nations.

Useful Tetun words and phrases

Hello – Elo

Good morning – Bondia

Good afternoon – Botarde

Goodbye – Adeus/Hau ba lai

Please – Favor ida

Thank you (very much) – Obrigadu (barak)

No, thank you – Diak, obrigado

Excuse me – Kolisensa

I’m sorry – Deskulpa

How are you? – Diak ka lai

I’m fine, thank you – Diak, obrigadu

What is your name? – Ita nia naran saida?

My name is… – Han nia saida…

What is this? – Nee saida?

How far is it? – Dook ka lae?

Where is…? – Iha nebee?

How much does it cost? – Nee folin hira?

Where are you going? – Bá neʼebé

I’m going (home) – Haʼu bá (uma)

Home – Uma

Market – Mercado

Hotel – Otél

Airport – Aeroportu

I like your nose – Hau gosta o ita nia inus *

Beard – Hasrahun

Bald – Botak

Bald Englishman – orang ingris botak/gundul

I like to (laugh) – Hau gosta (hamnasa)

Laugh – Hamnasa

Play – Halimar

With you – O ita

I like to watch stars with you again – Hau gosta hare fitun o ita fila fali

Happy to meet you – Contenté hasoru ita

See the way (sign of respect when people are leaving) – Haré daran

I’ve spent one week in Timor Leste – Semana ida ona iha Timor Leste

How long have you been in Timor Leste? – Cleorona iha Timor Leste?

Day – Loron

Week – Semana

Month – Fulan

Year – Tinan

Die (death) – Maté

*We defy you to find any better icebreaker in any language on the planet. From Dili to Gleno to Dare to Maubisse to Aelieu and beyond, any time we used this phrase we were met with uncomprehending silence, then a chuckle followed by a lightbulb above the head and finally mighty laughs and broad smiles as people worked out what we said. It was a fantastic way to meet new people and conversations really flowed after that.

(Tenuous Link Editor: Although an interesting language to learn and simple enough to speak, Tetun is not widely spoken. You will, for example, find it spoken on Watabo’o Beach (presuming you actually come across anyone there) but may struggle to use it in England, Sri Lanka or Morocco. However, those last three destinations are plenty pretty to look at nevertheless.) 

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