Let’s Talk Malagasy

Each week on the Let’s Talk series, I’ll be featuring a language learner who will share their heroic process of mastering a foreign tongue. First up, Jessie talks Malagasy.


Mahay. /məhaj/ v. Language: Malagasy. Meaning: roughly translates as “to know,” though it can be used in more situations. If a student gets something right in class, a teacher might say “mahay!” as a way of saying “good job.” I could say “I’m not mahay cooking” to say I don’t know how to cook or am not good at cooking. As a foreigner, saying anything in Malagasy will likely get you a few exclamations of “mahaaaayyy!!”

I’m Jessie, a 26-year old blog editor and RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer). I started learning Malagasy when I entered Peace Corps as an education volunteer in Madagascar in 2011. I knew French before arriving, but really needed Malagasy for day-to-day interactions. Fortunately, we got 2 months of intensive language immersion before setting off on our own! You can read more about my experiences in Madagascar at my blog, The Nomadic Beat.

Malagasy is the official language of Madagascar, alongside French. It is an Austronesian language, spoken by roughly 18 million people.

Numbers for Words

1. How many years have you studied it? A little over two years.

2. How would you describe your fluency? 1–10 (0, a houseplant speaks this language better than me. 5, I’m just barely fluent; 11, I could write the dictionary.) 6/7 — “Advanced-mid” according to Peace Corps

3. Rate difficulty in learning this language on a scale of 1-5 for each of the following categories. 

     a. Pragmatics/communicational competence. (Appropriate use of language in context.) 3 – There are no conjugations, no plurals, no genders, and no class/age/rank to keep in mind while speaking Malagasy. However, there are two different distinctions for the pronoun “we” and which version of “there” or “here” gets used depends on how far away it is from the speaker. I also never managed to master the words for “brother” and “sister” — there are two different words for “brother” depending on if it’s the brother of a girl or the brother of a boy (same for sister).

     b. Grammar 3 – There are no conjugations or cases, and no verb “to be.” Malagasy is blissfully consistent in its most basic form (i.e. Faly aho is literally “happy I”). All verbs in this form start with an “M” — you change the M to an N for past tense, and the M to an H for future tense. For example:

Mandeha aho — I go

Nadeha aho — I went

Handeha aho — I will go

However, there is a next level of more “proper” Malagasy that gets more complicated (which is why I gave it a 3).

Antananarivo | Let's Talk Malagasy

Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar

     c. Pronunciation 2 – Malagasy makes sense phonetically to English speakers, but there are two sounds that are hard to master at first, the “ts” sound (Tsingy) and “ng” sound (Nga?!? What?!?). Also, there are a lot of repetitious sounds that are hard to get down (manana namana aho = I have friends), and some ridiculously long words. I mean, just try saying the name of Madagascar’s capitol, Antananarivo, or the name of one of their queens, Rabodoandrianampoinimerina. !*#%&!

     d. Vocabulary 3 – I couldn’t say how many words there are in Malagasy, but many words have dual meanings, so it never felt like I had to learn a gazillion words to be competent. Some of the words are ridiculously long (though usually, it’s the names that are hardest to memorize) but some are short and sweet.

It’s also nice that you can essentially create a whole conversation of just verbs. For example:

Mahandro = to cook


“Eny. Mahandro.”

The hardest part, really, was learning words that don’t have any direct translation in English, or represent an idea we don’t have.

     e. Spelling 4 – Again, spelling is pretty intuitive for English speakers and they use the Latin alphabet. The two complications are crazy long words, and trying to figure out how to spell something you’ve only heard said, since, like Americans, Malagasy will often drop a syllable or two in the middle of a word.

Lemurs in Madagascar | Let's Talk Malagasy

Lemurs in Madagascar

Language Meets Culture

1. Reinforce for me in ONE way or ONE example, from your own experience, the idea that language and culture are inseparable. This is very open-ended, and it’s meant to be ;) 

As an American, I would often describe small talk conversations in Madagascar as a series of “pointing out the obvious.” For example, if I was (clearly) walking to fetch water from a well, someone might shout “Maka rano?” (Literally: “Fetching water?”) to which I might respond “Eny, mipetrapetraka?” (Literally: “Yes, sitting?”).

To me, this always seemed like people wanted not just to acknowledge that they saw you, but also that they saw what you were doing. (Funnily, I also notice that some of my Malagasy Facebook friends will indiscriminately like all my status updates — even if they didn’t understand my reference — just so I know they “saw what I was up to.”)

2. Did language inspire you to travel? Or did travel inspire/force you to study language?

I definitely learned Malagasy because I lived and taught in Madagascar. I don’t think I could have even found the opportunity to learn in the U.S.!

3. Provide an example of how this language has helped you integrate or become more invested in your travels or your life abroad.  

Speaking Malagasy was such an easy way for myself and other Peace Corps volunteers in Madagascar to distinguish ourselves from the other “vahazah” (foreigners / white people). Anyone who came as a tourist obviously wouldn’t know much, if any, and if you were an expat living in Madagascar and could speak it, it was like a signal to Malagasy that you really cared about integrating; that you weren’t just trying to get by on your French and avoid making friends with Malagasy.

Also, since such a large portion of the Americans in Madagascar were Peace Corps volunteers / missionaries (who also learned Malagasy) I would sometimes get asked “why are Americans so mahay Malagasy?” Hah.

Rockclimbing in Andringitra National Park | Let's Talk Malagasy

Rockclimbing in Andringitra National Park

4. You are this language’s lawyer. Build a case for it. Why should people study this language? 

It’s a hard case to build — Malagasy is only really spoken in Madagascar (and Reunionese creole, on the island Reuion, is a derivative of Malagasy, French, and Bantu), and even then there’s sooo much regional variation (depending on how you qualify it, there could be 2 – 16 different dialects). But if you are going to travel in Madagascar, just getting by on your French will be tough. Most people outside urban centers and tourist areas don’t speak it, and even then, they don’t all speak it well. At least learn some basic greetings and how to shop for things. It will get you far and quickly make you a few friends!

** Note, all examples I have given are in standard Malagasy (Merina).

Some Fun Stuff

1. Favorite word in the language. 

Mangitkitka (to tickle) — Really, I just felt so proud of finally accomplishing saying this word (it took about a week), that I will never forget it . . . and thought it was super fun to “tickle attack” small children who would follow me around town by spinning around and saying “Mangitkitka!!” and tickling them. They always got a kick out of it.

2. A word that doesn’t translate directly to English, and approximately what it means.

Fetsy — it means something like “deviously clever” or “tricky.” Sometimes I still struggle to keep from inserting it into my English conversations.

3. A gesture in this language that differs from English.

When you want to motion for someone to come, you would lift your hand, palm facing the other person, and pull your fingers towards your palm, like you’re trying to grab a fly.

4. Tell us a funny story or mistranslation you made in your language learning process.

So, this wasn’t one of mine personally, but one of my favorites from another Peace Corps volunteer:

He was trying to describe to a group of people in his village how to build a latrine. While trying to say “put the rocks around the hole” he accidentally said “put the rocks around the penis” since the word for hole, lavaka, is incredibly similar to penis, lataka. Whoops!

And in conclusion….

Misaotra betsaka ianareo rehetra! Tsy tena mora ny teny Malagasy, fa raha handeha any Madagasikara ianereo, dia tokony mahay kely kely! 

(Thanks so much y’all! Malagasy isn’t really easy, but if you go to Madagascar, you should be a little mahay! [know some])

Cirque Rouge Madagascar | Let's talk Malagasy

Cirque Rouge in Mahajanga, Madagascar

Thanks so much, Jessie!

Are you a foreign language learner? If you’d like to participate in the Let’s Talk series, shoot me an email at athingforwords (at) gmail (dot) com! 

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  • Francesca

    Pretty fascinating stuff. I definitely can get down with those verb tenses (M, N, and H). Great interview!

  • This was really interesting to read as I hadn’t heard of Malagasy before. It’s amazing how many dialects can exist even in a country as relatively small as Madagascar.

  • I really enjoyed this interview – so interesting and informative, and I’m looking forward to future installments. Mahay!

  • Anne

    What a joy to have access to a new culture AND a new language through someone who knows both. Fascinating read.

  • I kind of assumed they spoke this in Malaga, Spain by the title. Thank goodness I know now! Whoo!

  • Beth

    Being a language nerd I absolutely love this new series! Can’t wait to read more because I knew nothing about Malagasy, and I’m sure you’ll have plenty of other languages featured that I can learn about!

  • I knew nothing about Malagasy before this post. Super interesting! I can imagine learning such a rare language would be an entirely different experience from my experience with Spanish. Now I’ve got a strange urge to learn Malagasy!

    I took a class about Nahuatl (the Aztec language) in college, and, while the class examined the language without really teaching us how to speak, it was fascinating to explore a language that’s so gramatically different from any of the other languages I know. Malagasy would be similar in that regard!

    • Kirstie, I didn’t either! When I met Jessie at a travel meet-up and learned she spoke Malagasy, I was like I NEED AN INTERVIEW ON THAT!! That’s actually the origins of the idea for this whole series.
      So interesting how you studied Nahuatl—it’s crazy to me how languages can differ SO MUCH in their structure and form. I wish I could study them all!

      • Jessie Beck

        Haha, I agree with both of you! And yup, if you ever want a lesson in Malagasy… my door is open ;D Tsy maninona (no problem!)

  • Heather @ TravelingSaurus

    I absolutely love these posts! Keep them coming…it’s so interesting to know more both about the history of the language, usage, and people who have learned to speak it.

  • Super interesting interview about a language I don’t know very much about, and I love that anecdote about how smalltalk is just “stating the obvious” :D

    What I think is the craziest thing about Malagasy is how it’s not a Niger-Congo or Afro-Asiatic language, but an Austronesian one; i.e., it’s more closely related to far-off languages like Indonesian or Hawaiian than to nearby Swahili, all because of the maritime spread of the Austronesian languages thousands of years ago across the Indian & Pacific oceans.

    • Great point, Trevor! I didn’t even give that a second thought, but you’re completely right—crazy how languages can spread so far and wide. Or how they can remain so isolated in some cases, like Basque.

    • Jessie Beck

      Ditto, Trevor. There are definitely loan words from Bantu and French (i.e fork is forchettey in Malagasy but forchette in French; Friday is zoma in Malagasy — z’s are pronounced like j’s — but ijumaa in Swahili) but otherwise it’s more related to distant Bahasa Indonesian or Tagalog than continental African languages!