What you need to About Swahili: An In-Depth Guide on How to Learn Swahili

What you need to About Swahili: An In-Depth Guide on How to Learn Swahili

Swahili–a Bantu language widely used as a lingua franca in East Africa and having official status in several countries.

Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, is a Bantu language and the first language of the Swahili people. It is a lingua franca of the African Great Lakes region and other parts of eastern and south-eastern Africa, including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Swahili has become a second language spoken by tens of millions in three African Great Lakes countries (Tanzania, Kenya, and the DRC) where it is an official or national language..

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Origin of Swahili

Its old name was Kingozi, but as traders came from Arab countries, their vocabulary intermingled with the language. It was originally written in Arabic script.

How to Learn Swahili: An In-Depth Guide

Are you familiar with some Swahili words or phrases like Jambo and Hakuna Matata? Now, learn how Kenyans ACTUALLY speak! I’d like to show you how to learn Swahili.

What you need to About Swahili: An In-Depth Guide on How to Learn Swahili

Image credit: raymondsanti

While living in Kenya for the past year and a half, I’ve been studying the Swahili language (known as “Kiswahili” to its speakers) and have found it to be an excellent language for me to learn as an English speaker.

And I think you you might want to consider giving this language a shot yourself. Here’s why you might like to learn Swahili:

7 Good Reasons to Learn Swahili — East Africa’s Lingua Franca

Reason 1: A Diverse History

Swahili is a Bantu (African origin) language with a large Arabic influence. It also includes some loan words from languages such as English, German, and Portuguese. It originated on the East African coast due to a rich and diverse history of trading and cultural exchange between Arabic nations, coastal Africans, and Europeans.

Reason 2: It’s the Most Widely-Spoken Language Across Africa

Swahili is spoken by an estimated 90 million people in Africa alone, and is the most widely-spoken African language. It is the national language of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the DRC, and is used as the “lingua franca” throughout East and Southeast Africa.

What you need to About Swahili: An In-Depth Guide on How to Learn Swahili

Reason 3: You’ll Expand Your Ideas of How Language Works

If you’re used to Eurocentric languages, it might be a surprise to learn that in Swahili, plurals are formed by changing the beginning of a word, rather than the ending. For example, a singular teacher is mwalimu and multiple teachers are walimu. One shoe is kiatu, but many shoes are viatu.

Another different concept is that of telling time. In Swahili language and culture, the day begins at 7:00 a.m., which is usually around the time of sunrise. Therefore, 7:00 a.m. is translated to mean “hour one” or saa moja (moja is the word for “one”). 8:00 a.m. is “hour two” or saa mbili, and so on, reflecting a different way of looking at time than in the Western world, where we mark midnight as the beginning of the new day, or Judaic culture, where the day begins at sunset.

Many other differences exist that will help to expand your perspective of how language functions, and how this can be reflected in the culture.

Reason 4: It’s a Shared African Language, Without Being Colonial

Where is Swahili spoken? Across East Africa. And that’s something else about Swahili that I find interesting. If you look at nations such as Nigeria or Ghana, other former British colonies, those nations don’t have a shared language that is an African language. If they are from different tribes and grew up speaking different native languages, they would need to use English or pidgin as a common second language. Meanwhile, in Kenya, and throughout East Africa, people can communicate using a shared African language, that has much in common with their own native languages. They don’t have to rely on a colonial language to be understood throughout their own country.

Reason 5: You’ll Get Unique Experiences and Extra Insights into Kenyan Culture

As Fluent in 3 Months founder Benny has mentioned many times, speaking the local language gives you special access to certain aspects of the culture. Kenya is certainly not the only country where you can get a “local price” on items at markets rather than paying the foreigner’s price, or “Mzungu tax.”

One highlight of my time in Kenya was when I was able to spend one week in a rural women’s village in the county of Samburu. I was able to live with the women and their children and become fully immersed in their lifestyle, a truly special experience. Because the village was rather isolated from any big cities or cosmopolitan centers, English was very rarely spoken. Most of the villagers spoke Kisamburu, their mother tongue, but quite a few knew Swahili as well. Because of my proficiency in basic Swahili, I was able to communicate with them, and we formed quite strong bonds. The language barrier is so real when it comes to forging friendships or even just being understood. I was able to have such a great experience in this village because of my ability to communicate with the women in our shared second language, Swahili.

Reason 6: Kenyans are Very Encouraging When You’re Learning Swahili

A popular reason language learners give for not speaking their target language enough is that they feel self-conscious when they try, or they are worried about embarrassing themselves in front of native speakers. This could not be further from the attitude of Kenyans towards “Mzungus” (white foreigners) who make attempts to speak Swahili.

When I was practicing my Swahili during my travels in Kenya, I was often met by pleasantly surprised looks from the locals, who would say things like “si kawaida!” (it’s not usual) when they heard me speaking Swahili. Kenyans in general are really into Western/American culture, and they are very welcoming towards visitors from the US and Europe. Most Kenyans you meet will love to hear you speaking Swahili! I even got some compliments on my accent and grammar, even though my Swahili is far from perfect.

What you need to About Swahili: An In-Depth Guide on How to Learn Swahili

Reason 7: Swahili is Easy!

By studying Swahili, I’ve learned for myself that it can be a relatively easy language to learn. In a moment, I’ll show you the hacks I’ve discovered that make Swahili an easier language than you’d think.

First, an objection I’ve sometimes heard to learning Swahili:

“But… Don’t they speak English in Kenya?”

Yes, English is the official language of Kenya (Swahili is the national language), and many English-speaking tourists or expats living in Kenya get by relying only on English.
However, this doesn’t mean it is spoken by 100% of Kenyans – far from it. While many Kenyans speak three or more languages fluently (Swahili, English, and their native language or “mother tongue”), the level of English proficiency usually highly correlates with how much education they’ve received.

While in Kenya you’ll come into contact with many highly-educated Kenyans whose English is excellent, especially in the tourism industry, there are also many Kenyans, especially in rural areas, who speak very little English. Furthermore, English-speaking Kenyans usually learn Swahili before they learn English, and therefore feel more comfortable with Swahili.

The Difficulty of Learning Swahili: Why Swahili is an Easy Language to Learn

Swahili is usually ranked in Category 2 or 3 by various language learning programs when it comes to its difficulty for English speakers.

However, I find it to be quite an easy language to grasp for those who have grown up speaking English, or had exposure to Eurocentric or Romance languages (particularly Spanish or Italian).

Here are a few reasons why you’ll find Swahili not only interesting and practical to learn, but also a fun and easy language to pick up:

Swahili Has No Gendered Nouns or Articles

For many English speakers, the “gender” of nouns can be one of the most frustrating parts of learning a language. Author and humorist David Sedaris expressed his frustrations with trying to remember what gender each noun has while learning French in his essay Me Talk Pretty One Day:

“I spent months searching for some secret code before I realized that common sense has nothing to do with it. Hysteria, psychosis, torture, depression: I was told that if something is unpleasant it’s probably feminine. This encouraged me, but the theory was blown by such masculine nouns as murder, toothache, and rollerblade. I have no problem learning the words themselves, it’s the sexes that trip me up and refuse to stick.”

In Swahili, you won’t need to worry about whether nouns are masculine or feminine. In fact, you won’t have to worry about articles at all! Swahili has neither definite (the) nor indefinite (a, an) articles.

For example, to say “I need a chair,” You would say Ninahitaji kiti. The first part of the sentence, Ninahitaji means “I need,” and the second part, kiti, means “chair.” This sentence can either mean “I need a chair” or “I need the chair.” The exact meaning is easily implied by the context of your sentence.

You also won’t need to worry about gendered pronouns. The pronoun for “he” and “she” is one and the same. So the sentence Yeye ni mwalimu is used to say both “He is a teacher” and “She is a teacher.”

The same is true for Anacheza: “He is playing” or “She is playing.” Again, the meaning is worked out from the context. In fact, in a world that increasingly recognizes the non-binary aspect of gender, one could argue that Swahili is by default a very gender-inclusive language.

Another easy aspect of Swahili is that it has no formal “you” pronoun, as languages like Spanish and French do. As an English speaker, the idea of a formal “you” was something I frequently found puzzling. While working for an Ecuadorian-based travel company, I’d often wonder if I should address my coworkers as  or usted. And then, did I get the verb conjugations correct to go along with either the formal or informal pronouns? I’m sure this comes quite naturally to Spanish speakers, but for someone who isn’t used to it, this formal/informal pronoun business often gave me a headache. I generally didn’t want to offend anyone, so I usually went with the formal “you” by default.

Swahili Verb Conjugations Are Really Simple

In Swahili, rather than memorizing conjugations and endings for the numerous verbs you will learn, you really just need to learn the infinitive and root form of each verb.

For example, let’s take the infinitive verb kutembea, which means “to walk.” Each verb’s infinitive form includes the “ku-” prefix. To just use the root of the verb, we say tembea, meaning “walk.”

Some examples:

  • Ninatembea – “I am walking”
  • Nilitembea – “I walked”
  • Nimetembea – “I have walked” (recently)
  • Nitatembea – “I will walk”

Here, the verb root and the subject pronoun (ni – “I”) stay the same, and we just change the tense marker: nalime, and ta.

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