Learning a Zambian Local Language: Bemba

Peace Corps volunteers are required to speak the local language of the community and conduct work in that language. Some posts have a language requirement, such as Spanish or French, but Zambia did not. Even though English is the official language of Zambia, over 70 local languages are spoken throughout the country. The 200-something Peace Corps Volunteers learn six of them – Bemba, Tonga, Kaonde, Mambwe, Lunda, and Nyanja, all of which are Bantu (Bantu literally means people) languages. Adam and I were assigned Bemba, the most widely spoken language in Zambia (3.7 million people speak Bemba as their first language, but even more speak it as a second). Most Zambian people we met speak at least two languages, some even up to six! Bemba is not only a language, it is also a group of people with their own culture. Bemba people are mostly situated in Central, Northern, Muchinga, Copperbelt, and Luapula provinces.

Language Training

Learning Bemba has been one of my favorite parts of training. We studied for four hours each morning with Ba Crispine, who was intimidating at first, but as we got to know him, he is just a giant teddy bear who loves to impart wisdom. Four fellow trainees are in the class, making us “The Crispine Five”. Adam is in another class. Besides learning in the classroom, we used the language to give presentations about fish farming practices to Zambian farmers as well as conduct needs analyses to better understand the community. Every night, we sharpen our conservation skills with our host family.

Throughout training, we had a few language simulations where we spoke with teachers one-to-one to assess our progress. The final exam is called the Language Proficiency Interview. The 30-minute LPI is recorded and graded by a team. It was a little nerve-wracking, but we were all relieved when it was done. Trainees are expected to reach intermediate-mid level by the end of training in order to swear in as official Peace Corps volunteers and start service. I scored intermediate high, so I was happy about that! Have so much to learn, though, so can’t wait to get integrated into the community.


Some facts about Bemba

  • Bemba is a descriptive language. While there might not be a specific word for a particular concept, you can combine words. For example, the word for “depth” is “length go down” or “ubutali ukuya panshi”. One word can have multiple meanings: “ukumfwa” can mean to hear, to feel, or to understand, so context is crucial. Additionally, tones play an important role in context. Ukuimba can mean to dig or to sing based on how you emphasize the /i/.
  • There aren’t as many tenses as English (well, maybe there are but we haven’t learned them), but there is a distinction between “past of today” and “past of yesterday and beyond”. For example, “I saw a cat” can be earlier today or yesterday, but in Bemba, those would be different tenses. But to make things confusing, “mailo” means yesterday and tomorrow, so you have to pay attention to the tense!
  • The noun is the center of the sentence. This was a new concept for me and it took time to wrap my head around it, but as I listen to Bemba more, it starts to become second nature. Adjectives, demonstratives, possessive pronouns, and verbs all have different prefixes based on the noun. There are 18 classes of nouns, each with its own rule. Example:

-tali = tall
-ukupona = to fall (uku is the prefix to infinitive verbs, so when conjugated, drop the uku and add the noun and tense marker)
“Icimuti iitali ilepona” “tree tall is falling”
“Abantu abatali balepona” “people tall are falling”
“Ifintu ifitali filepona” “things tall are falling”

  • Every sound is an open syllable. This is similar to Korean, so people usually say my name as “Lianney” which is already a nickname of mine anyway. (Hi, Shaun).
  • The infinitive form of all verbs end in /a/. Makes it slightly easier to memorize my 150+ verb list! I say infinitive because there are suffixes that change the ending based on the tense and context.

Bemba may be intimidating at first, but it’s a forgiving language. My strategy was to focus on building vocabulary while having a foundation of the basic sentence structure. I didn’t spend too much time memorizing the noun classes and rules – that came more naturally as I was exposed to Bemba. The approach is communicative, so even if there are mistakes (and there will always be mistakes!), as long as you get your point across, that’s all that really matters. My advice is to always have flashcards on you and use the language as much as humanly possible! Practice, practice, practice. You’ll realize what words you really need to memorize as they come up in daily conversation. Using the language solidifies those neural pathways like muscle memory. People WILL laugh at you, but in an endearing way. They’re thrilled to see a foreigner speak their language and that will be key in integrating into the community, enhancing your work and life in Zambia.


Now, for a sample of Bemba!

Muli Shani? Ishina lyandi nine Lianne. Nafuma ku Amelika mu New Jersey lelo nalifyalwa ku Korea. Nalesambilia amapsychology ku Florida. Akale nalesambilisha icisungu ku Korea, Japan, kabili Australia. Panuma ya naletandala pa imyaki ingi. Nalitemwa ukusambila indimi na intambi iya pusana pusana, ukubutuka, kabili ukuipika. Ndi musambi wa icibemba na ubulimi bwa isabi pantu mukaba kaipeela mu Peace Corps. Nkalaikala ku Northern Province mu mushi mu Mungwi. Nkalasambilisha abalimi pafya ukusunga isabi kabili tukakabushanya intambi sha abena Zambia na Amelika.

How are you? My name is Lianne. I’m from America, New Jersey, but I was born in Korea. I studied psychology in Florida. In the past, I taught English in Korea, Japan, and Australia. After, I was traveling for several years. I like learning languages and different cultures, running, and cooking. I’m a student of Bemba and fish farming because I’m going to be a Peace Corps volunteer. I will be living in a village in the Mungwi district of Northern province. I will be teaching about keeping fish and we will exchange Zambian and American culture.
(more or less, given some mistakes probably)

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