Hey, Habari, rafiki yangu? 🇰🇪 🇹🇿 In this post we are going to talk about a language that we believe we know nothing about, when in fact we have some familiarity with it. That’s also why learning Swahili is a terrific idea 😉
Hmmm, in reality, there are plenty of reasons: Swahili is taking the world by storm. 🌩️
The number of people speaking it as a second language doesn’t cease to grow, more and more public schools all across Africa have been including it in their syllabus, the countries now granting Swahili official status have been increasing. 🎖️
Besides, learning Swahili is excellent in order to travel comfortably in central-south Africa, watch original-version movies, do business in the region, relish the underrated Swahili literature, work in Swahili-speaking regions but from home too, be London or Louth. 🇬🇧
And here comes the issue: how can someone from Cornwall, Scotland or Kamchatka learn Swahili? 🤔
Courses are hardly an option, as they are scarce, expensive even in capital cities and overly relying on a scholarly approach rather than a communicative one. In my opinion, teaching yourself Swahili is the best you can do: study from the comfort of home, at your pace, focusing on what matters the most to you. 👏
OK, then, hum, how?
Enrolling on an online course? Stalking my Nairobi-born neighbour? Downloading an App and doing exercises? Getting a textbook and sorting things out? Checking the local library? Practising with the folks at the Tanzanian restaurant in central Liverpool? 🍲
As a professional in the field of getting most things wrong and later getting some of them right, I may have something to share with you: below, you’re going to find what I have discovered about Swahili, on top of materials and strategy to hit the ground running. 👟
So, let’s have a look at that. 😉
Learn Swahili: What language is this?
Snapshot of an academic reply: Swahili, or Kiswahili, is a Bantu language from the Niger-Congo family. 🇳🇪
Now, it’s useful to clarify that Africa does not only harbour immense biodiversity, but also an astounding linguistic variety.
A linguist popularly said: if we adopted here the strict criteria used in Europe to define what a language is, in Africa, we would easily have tens of thousands of them. 🤯
In Africa, the Niger-Congo is one of the prominent language families and the Bantu subgroup is the most popular: approximately 30% of the continent’s population has a Bantu language as mother tongue and Swahili is its champion. 🏆
In other terms, we could say Swahili is Bantu like English is Germanic. It was born out of the contacts with a handful of other languages: Arabic and Persian first, then Hindi, English, German, Portuguese, etc.
It is difficult to date the origin of the language, presumably between the 8th and 12th centuries AD, but we have evidence of Arabs and Persians roaming this part of Africa as early as in the 2nd century AD. 😮
It has been written in both Arabic and Persian characters, depending on the time period, the area and the occasion: in fact, the first written trace of the language is found in letters from 1711, when the Arabic alphabet was used. Today, Swahili is written in Latin script. 🔤
In ancient and not-so-ancient times, Arabs and Persians travelled there to trade and seek resources, many eventually settling and mixing with the locals.
Later, from the coast it spread inland through the Arab trade, but also thanks to the arrival of Portuguese, German and British folks, who certainly weren’t less active.
Since prehistory, this area has been a hotbed of agricultural production, manufacture and exchange of goods; something like an African Hanseatic League. The intermingling that took place provided the basis of the Swahili language and culture.
This is probably the best known indigenous African language: it is spoken as a mother tongue by 1-5 million people but used as a lingua franca by 50-100 million Africans, who learned Swahili either at school or informally. 🏫
However, some factors stand in the way of assessing the true total amount of speakers: notably, few reliable data and the lack of clarity with regards to intelligible varieties.
Hence, the estimates you can read around mention 150-180 million fluent speakers: those with some understanding of the language are probably as many. 🧍🧍🧍
Swahili is an official language in Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, Rwanda, Comoros Islands and Uganda. 🇺🇬
East Africa, by Lonely Planet
It is an official language of the African Union and the East African Community (EAC): Swahili is growing in prestige as a tool of communication among Africans of all latitudes, for obvious reasons. 😎
Languages like English, French, Arabic and Portuguese evoke ghosts many locals prefer to avoid: colonisation, slavery, extraction of resources. But… how African Swahili is? A lot. 🤓
The grammar is deeply Bantu. Nouns are divided into classes: there are for people, vegetables, animals, objects, verbs, etc; each class has its prefixes for singular and plural. Welcome to an African view of the world 😉
The other languages have poured a lot of lexicon into Swahili, though. There are borrowings from the speech of all the peoples who have interacted with the ethnic groups autochthonous to this land, like:
- rafiki: friend, from Arabic
- meza: table, from Portuguese
- shule: school, from German
- machi: March, from English
- pesa: money, from Hindi
In 1928, it was decided that true Swahili should be the language spoken on the island of Unguja, the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar, which belongs to Tanzania. 🇹🇿
Then, the Germans established it as the official language of Tanganyika, their colony; on their side, the British encouraged its usage as the lingua franca of the population in their dominion. 🇬🇧
This variety is the so-called Kiunguja: if you learn Swahili nowadays, this is the one you will focus on.
Ah: ki- means the language of. This is why you sometimes come across the nomenclature Kiswahili: the language of the Swahili people.
It is an inflectional language (words are modified to reflect the meaning within the sentence) and agglutinative too (bits of words are added to the original words to express what we want).
What are the chances of encountering Swahili? Not negligible at all. 😉
Several wide-ranging media use it. Among others:
- Deutsche Welle, which is the German National Radio,
- Australian SBS, 🌏
- Radio France International,
- Voice of America,
- BBC Swahili.
Have you ever heard the phrase Hakuna Matata 🦁 Did you watch The Lion King? Or heard this song in Swahili by Miriam Makeba?
Do words like safari or simba ring a bell? Are you familiar with the African-American celebration named Kwanzaa?
Well my friend: without knowing it, you’ve already been touched by Swahili 😉
Enough with the introductions: let’s see now what are the main reasons for you to learn Swahili.
Learn Swahili: Why you should start now
#1 To become knowledgeable of African history and culture
When we journey there for the first time, read a history book or a novel set in the continent, we realise how abysmally ignorant we are about Africa, outside of the continent. 😯
Europeans laugh when Americans say “I have visited Europe” as if Europe was anything homogeneous. Ehm, the same crime is committed against Africa. 🌍
Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour by Martin Meredith
There are so many Africas that it is impossible to know them all, in the span of a lifetime: but Swahili’s is worth delving into, for its worldview, its contamination with the Arab religiosity and Persian customs.
#2 Getting out of the Indo-European linguistic cocoon
Learn French? Useful, but trite. Learn Persian? Fascinating, but still conventional. Learn Swahili: this is starting to smell awesomely exotic. 🦒
With its Semitic-Bantu mix, if you fancy getting off the beaten track and dabbling in a language none of your friends has ever considered, here’s your chance. Andddddddd it’s not such a complex language, as we have seen and I’ll tell you.
#3 Travel to Africa
Learning Swahili is the best guarantee of having a lingua franca at your disposal in large swathes of Africa.
Travelling around, you may find Swahili varieties different from those “standard” taught in the textbooks I suggest here, but I would deem mutual understanding always possible. 🤝
As anywhere on this funny little planet, speaking with locals in their language generates a close, warm interaction: you will be seen as a thoughtful traveller, rather than a silly tourist, only eager to take breathtaking pictures to foster their personal brand.
And, ah: make time to visit Lamu, an underrated corner of Africa. 📍
The Swahili World by various authors
#4 Learning Swahili is (relatively) easy
Although I am no Africanist, I reckon that of all the languages of the continent, Swahili is likely the most accessible.
- It has neither tones nor other devilries that makes learners of other Bantu languages despair. 😔
- It is a highly phonetic language: adieu to crazy spellings like French or Arabic (or, ehm, English).
- Few are the sounds to which an English speaker is unfamiliar. 👂
- The peculiarities of Swahili grammar throw you off only the first ten minutes.
- It is the mother tongue of a few million people and the learned language of a couple hundred million –> hence, Swahili speakers are used to all kinds of accents.
Olé, let’s study!
#5 Linking with other languages
If you’re passionate about Arabic, or if you’re more of a fan of Bantu languages, you’ll be surprised by the points of contact between them and Swahili.
African Languages – An Introduction by Heine and Nurse
Swahili is a cornucopia of Arabic borrowings, just like Spanish, Persian and Urdu. Not only: learning Swahili will familiarise you with languages such as Xhosa (Mandela’s mother tongue) and Zulu, major languages of southern Africa. 🇿🇦
#6 Working in Africa
I mean: in Africa and with Africa. It would be about time: the Americans beat us, now the Chinese are beating us, and soon the South Africans will too.
South Africa is a country with 11 official languages, yet in 2020 it legislated in favour of a language that is not indigenous either: since then, Swahili has been the most widely offered optional language in the country’s schools. 🏫
Many have asked themselves: What was the need? As if the eleven indigenous languages, plus the other foreign languages already being studied there, were not enough. Hehe, the point is that languages are not neutral tools.
The South African government’s decision reflects a clear political will, the same will that led Uganda to take the same path back in 1992. 🇺🇬
Cape Town’s decision does not come as a surprise: South Africa wants to establish itself as the point of reference in a region that is growing in a disorderly, but fierce, way. 🐂
The Swahili language has for years been on the rise across the part of the continent below the Sahara desert: it is expected that, in the coming years, more countries will join the initiative.
South Africans have an advantage: they do not come from outside the continent and a significant proportion of them already have a Bantu language as their mother tongue (Zulu, Xhosa and Ndebele are). But there will be opportunities for all.
Big corporations in fields like logistics, commerce, tourism, agriculture, industry are moving expats to Africa (with generous payslips) and Swahili speakers have a real advantage. NGOs and academia are also very active. 🏛️
You’ll love reading this witness from an MSF doctor working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As I said: learning Swahili helps a lottttt.
#7 Swahili speakers are supportive
Whether you are in Africa or northern Canada, Swahili-speaking Africans are an incredibly welcoming group: you will find help and correction. 🙂
One can learn a language anyway, but feeling encouraged is great.
Learn Swahili: Suggested resources
Here go the books I have used for teaching myself Swahili. First of all, my fav: Colloquial Swahili.
It’s an excellent method to begin: it offers a step-by-step approach to the language, focusing on informal Swahili. I think it’s quite well done. I’d start from here.
Then, I’d suggest you keep studying with other textbooks of similar difficulty: why? Because learning by ourselves isn’t like having a private teacher at our disposal to clarify doubts at any given moment.
One textbook is strong on a particular ability, another offers its best on another one: the best way to achieve a solid A2, B1 or B2 is by covering the same level with more material.
Pimsleur, for example, it’s a 100% audio method. I find it awesome for exercising specifically oral comprehension and production.
Pimsleur Conversational Swahili: the superduper audio popular method. Excellent.
Swahili-English / English-Swahili Practical Dictionary, published by Hippocrene: the best dictionary that I could put my hands on to date. If you find a better one, please let me know in the comments below.
Kiswahili (Swahili): a Foundation for Speaking, Reading and Writing, by Hinnebusch and Mirza. Simply gorgeous: it’s complete and with useful cultural references. It’s the manual the Peace Corps use.
I haven’t suggested it as a first resource because of two reasons: there is no audio material with it and its vintage appearance scare some students away. But it’s worth it.
To learn Swahili you must work for some years, but if you dedicate half an hour every day, for a year and a half, you’re going to achieve a nice level for sure. 👍
Besides this, during this time I would avoid YouTube and shady websites. I have found too much material talking about Swahili without the slightest clue, or offering Sheng labelling it “Swahili”.
Sheng is East Africa’s Spanglish, if you will: interesting without a doubt, but not what one is commonly after.
Learn Swahili: Deepen in Swahili Culture
So many years and not feeling it: Swahili Port Cities by Prita Meier is a good book about the coastal cities of Swahililand.
Published by the Indiana University Press, it’s a mixed visual-textual account of the cities along the seaside of a merchant culture such as the Swahili one, with commercial ties with kingdoms as far as the Persian and the German. 🇩🇪
Part travelogue, part history book, spiced with personal anecdotes, Shakespeare in Swahilililand is a great work: it talks about this part of the world from a different standpoint. It takes a while to get going, but it undoubtedly is a good read.
Learn Swahili: Conclusions
I hope this post has been of interest to you: I have tried to condense here all my experience so that you can learn Swahili without losing sleep. 💤
Mastering Swahili can lead you to uncountable paths: are you up for it? 😉
Now, I have a tiny favour to ask you. 🙏
Acquiring this info, with all its faux-pas and its aha moments, has been the work of a long, long time. Writing it in a decent format has also proved cumbersome: if you have found it profitable, would you please share it? It’s just a click for you but it represents an immense help to me. 🙏
🐘 Thank you for the time taken to read this. I wish you a nice Mal d’Africa, hoping it’s merely the beginning of a long, exciting adventure. 🦍
See you soon here 😉
Your personal linguafricanist,