Echoes from the motherland: Heritage language transmission within the Malawian community in South Africa


This paper explores heritage language transmission among immigrant families in South Africa. Such research is essential to maintaining language for educational purposes and family interactions. This is a very important topic in a multilingual and multicultural country such as South Africa, and it adds new knowledge to the current research on family language policies and heritage languages. Family interactions are central to language transmission. The available literature shows family units as central to language maintenance and sustenance among immigrant families. Research on immigrant language practices in South Africa is sparse, with available research mainly focusing on school experiences. No available research specifically addresses heritage language transmission within Malawian immigrant families in South Africa, which this study aimed to investigate. The research employed a sociolinguistic approach to explore the language transmission of Chichewa within Malawian immigrant families. The theoretical framework positions Chichewa as mainly used in family circles and less at religious and social gatherings. Data were collected through interviews and observations at family and social gatherings. The study finds that the family context is the main domain within which children are exposed to parental heritage language to a consequential degree, whereas social gatherings contribute to a lesser extent. The data show that parental efforts at transmitting heritage language are insufficient for sustainable levels. Although parents wish to preserve some elements of their identities and culture, a signifier of ethnic identity, their children seem not keen to do so. The study uncovered two major reasons for children’s disinterest: fear of anti-foreign sentiments and a lack of attachment to the parental home country. The paper concludes with the identification of an emerging ‘indelible’ heritage language speaker, a phenomenon that could motivate further research in this field.


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Author Biography

Rockie Sibanda, University of Johannesburg
Rockie Sibanda is an associate professor in the Department of Languages, Cultural Studies and Applied Linguistics at the University of Johannesburg. He is the Director of the Multilingual Language Services Office (MLSO) at the University of Johannesburg. His research interests are literacy development and critical literacy, focusing on multilingualism and meaning making in complex multilingual spaces, which extend to language and identity of minority and migrant communities. Email address: