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About Swahili (Kiswahili)

Origins of Swahili; Who Speaks Swahili; Language Schools; Swahili Media


Click here for basic Swahili phrases useful for travelers to East Africa.

Who Speaks Swahili?

Swahili is the most widely spoken language in sub-Saharan Africa. Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa, but it's not a first language for many people. Swahili, along with English are the official languages in Kenya and Tanzania. Schools teach their pupils in Swahili at least through the primary level. Ugandans will probably understand some Swahili but outside of the capital Kampala, it's rarely spoken. This is due in part because Idi Amin wanted to make Swahili the official language (not English) and Ugandans associate the language with the brutal regime of that time.

If you're traveling in Rwanda and Burundi, French will probably get you further than Swahili, but a few words here and there should be understood and the effort will be appreciated.

Swahili is also spoken in parts of Zambia, DRC, Somalia and Mozambique.

It is estimated that around 70 million people speak Swahili (although only around 1 million consider it their mother tongue).

Origins of Swahili

Swahili may date back several thousand years, but it certainly developed into the language we hear today with the arrival of Arab and Persian traders on the East African coast (500 - 1000 AD). Swahili is a word the Arabs used to describe "the coast" and only later did it come to apply to the distinctive East African coastal culture. In Swahili, the correct word to describe the language is Kiswahili and the people who speak Kiswahili as their mother tongue, may call themselves Waswahilis.

Swahili is basically a mixture of Bantu and Arabic but you'll notice there are English, German and Portuguese derived words as well.

Swahili Time

Swahili time starts at 6am not midnight. So if a Tanzanian tells you the bus leaves at 1 in the morning, he probably means 7am. If he says the train leaves at 3 in the morning that would mean 9am. It's wise to double check. Interestingly, Ethiopians use the same clock, but they don't speak Swahili.

Online Swahili Courses and Dictionaries

  • Kamusi Project is an excellent resource for those wanting to learn more advanced Swahili, it's a living Swahili dictionary with audio.

  • Swahili Dictionary is useful if you quickly want to know the meaning of a single word.

  • Travlang lists basic Swahili phrases along with audio.

  • Swahili online exercises from Penn State includes quizzes, audio, and songs.

  • Teach Yourself Swahili CD is an interactive Swahili course designed to use on a computer. It inlcudes basic reading, writing and conversational Swahili.

Swahili Language Schools in East Africa

Several language schools operate in Kenya and Tanzania where you can learn Swahili. They are usually small and don't have a web site to call their own, but once you arrive in a major town or capital city ask your local embassy or consulate for information.

  • Language School Teachers lists many Swahili teachers based all over the world. Some offer free classes online, others charge per lesson. The quality seems to vary and it doesn't look like anyone's qualifications are vetted in order to appear on this list. But, a useful resource if you want to do some legwork yourself.

Swahili Phrasebooks

No matter how much you study beforehand, when you're on the spot, the mind can draw a complete blank. If you're planning to spend more than just a few weeks in East Africa, it's worth buying a phrasebook.

Broadcasting in Swahili

Click here for basic Swahili phrases useful for travelers to East Africa.

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