The unoffical insider’s guide to Chichewa localisation

One of the biggest aspects of my day job as localisation coordinator for onebillion is localising educational apps into Chichewa (hint – it’s the main language spoken in Malawi in East Africa).

I’m off to Malawi again in 6 weeks, so as usual I’m getting some new apps ready for the kids there… Localisation for Malawi is pretty different to localisation for European markets, and it’s a bit of a learning curve working out how to tailor our products for schools there. Here are a few tidbits from what I’ve learned…

  1. The product itself has to be tailored for Malawi. Really. I write many of our apps myself, and during this process, I have to consider at every point ‘how will this work for a child in Malawi?’ For example, if I am writing simple maths questions using everyday objects, I have to think ‘is this an everyday object in Malawi?’ Often, it’s not. I’ve had to reject hundreds of ideas because they’re unfamiliar to Malawian children such as: birthday cakes with candles (children in Malawi don’t celebrate birthdays like this), wrapped presents (sadly they are very unlikely to ever receive one), robots or other ‘techy’ things (kids have probably never even seen a computer before), fish in bowls (this is an alien idea!), unfamiliar foods like chips, ice cream, cereal…, dragons or other fantasy creatures (Chichewa is based on things that people can actually see and experience), pairs such as a rabbit and a carrot (because our idea of things that go together is culturally conditioned). I have to always try and use international or familiar objects or animals such as common fruits like bananas, foods like bread or cake, plates/cups, basic toys, clothing, books… Simply taking a pre-existing product and giving it to Malawian kids won’t work as most apps are designed with British or American kids in mind and will be packed with concepts that are totally unknown to a Malawian child.
  2. Adapt, adapt, adapt. For all I’ve said above, we’re often faced with an object or concept that isn’t common in Malawi or a word that doesn’t exist in Chichewa. Fortunately my translators are very creative. We’ve had great solutions before like ‘scone’ instead of ‘cupcake’, ‘guava’ instead of ‘grapefruit’, ‘fierce animal’ to describe a dragon, ‘doll’ instead of ‘robot’… Often the Chichewa translator is able to simplify the concepts from the main script – such as saying ‘fruit’ instead of a specific fruit like a melon; replacing a word with a more familiar one (cupboard instead of fridge), or ‘describing’ a concept where a word doesn’t exist (‘big lizard’ for ‘dinosaur’).
  3. Simple is ALWAYS better – Malawian kids are not used to the variety of stimuli that British kids are. I always have to keep instructions and explanations as simple as possible in the source, and then ask the translator to make them even more simple in Chichewa. Anything specific in English like ‘cereal box’ or ‘cupcake’ is better simplified to ‘box’ or ‘cake’ as Chichewa-speaking kids don’t have the wide vocabulary or experience. Instructions are best kept super simple and without any abstract ideas. It’s always better to make an instruction concrete, for example, instead of ‘touch the screen’ of an ipad (this an abstract idea for a child), say ‘touch the picture’ (on the screen) so that they have a concrete idea of what to touch.
  4. Chichewa numbers. Chichewa numbers are the bane of my life! As they are not used to dealing with abstract concepts, their numbering system is incredibly unwieldy above about 10. Above 5, numbers are composites: i.e. ‘modzi’ is one, ‘sanu’ is five … but six is ‘sanu n’chimodzi’ (five and one). And it gets more complicated from there. Above number 5, you’re doing maths just to state a quantity. And imagine actually doing maths: ‘five and one, add five and two’ – I’m lost already. Fortunately, as the other main language is English, people are ok with English numbers, albeit with a slight accent (wani, thuu, firi, folo…). Since we’re trying to teach maths, this is pretty lucky for us! Even so, Chichewa speakers tend to mix their ‘awiri’s with their ‘thuu’s, so I always have to keep an eye out and check that the right thing is being used in the right place.
  5. Spelling is sort of optional. There is an official spelling system for Chichewa, but not many people seem to know it. As such, there are a tonne of variants for spelling most words, and three different translators might spell something a different way. This isn’t a huge problem when dealing with audio, but it’s something to bear in mind. Children generally can’t read and write in the first few years of school, and they may not even be able to write or recognise their own name, which can be a challenge! Even adults seem to basically guess how to spell the names of children around, so registering huge groups of them can be interesting.
  6. Chichewa doesn’t have words for a lot of things. Often they use an accented version of an English word, such as for shapes: sikweya (square), seko (circle)… My translators tend to laugh when faced with a word like ‘funnel’, ‘pyramid’ or ‘cuboid’ and simply make one up (fanelo, piramidi and kyuuboidi). I think I’m partly responsible for making some quite funny new words in Chichewa there.

So those are a few of my thoughts about localising our apps for this awesome country in this really different language. Maybe more to come, as this is a particular interest of mine!


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