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.
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.
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.
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 tú 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.”
- 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: na, li, me, and ta.
You’re not Starting From Scratch with Vocab — There are Plenty of Swahili Words You Already Know
As Benny has mentioned, when starting a language, you’re rarely starting completely from scratch. Even if you think you’re totally clueless when it comes to an African language, I can bet you’re familiar with more words in Swahili than you think.
The first example that comes to mind is safari, a word of Arabic origin that is the Swahili word for “journey.” Chances are, you’re also used to hearing this word in English in the context of a trip, usually to see animals, often in Sub-Saharan Africa. Any user of Apple products is also no doubt familiar with the Safari web browser. In Kenya, you might hear the phrase Safari njema which means “Have a good trip!” This can also help you remember the Swahili word safiri which is the verb for “travel.”
Jenga is another word known by many people in the US as a block building game, but its name actually comes directly from the Kenyan verb “build.” For example, Anajenga means “he is building”.
Additionally, if you’re at all familiar with the Disney movie The Lion King, you know some other Swahili words as well:
- simba – Swahili word for “lion”
- rafiki – Swahili word for “friend”
- Asante sana – “Thank you very much.” This can be heard in the song that Rafiki the baboon sings. The whole song goes “Asante sana, squash banana, wewe nugu, mimi hapana” which is a bit of a nonsense song that translates to “Thank you very much, squash banana, you are a baboon and I’m not.”
- Hakuna matata – “no problem/no worries.” Before The Lion King, hakuna matata was used in a well-known Kenyan song “Jambo Bwana” by Them Mushrooms. You’ll find that nowadays, Kenyans really only say the phrase hakuna matata to tourists. More commonly, you might hear haina shida which means essentially the same thing: “No problem!”
- Jambo – used as a greeting, again only for tourists. Jambo literally translates to “matter/issue/thing.” If a Kenyan greets you with Jambo, most likely it means they are trying to be friendly but assume you don’t know any Swahili. If you want to continue the conversation in Swahili, you can respond Sijambo, and then maybe follow with another Swahili greeting like Habari yako?
Cognates and loan words from other languages:
- Portuguese – familia (“family”), meza (“table), bandera (“flag”)
- German – shule (“school”)
- English – musiki (“music”), Afrika (“Africa”), basi (“bus”), boti (“boat”), benki (“bank”), hoteli (“hotel”), kompyuta (“computer”), teksi (“taxi”), blanketi (“blanket”), posta (“post office”), shati (“shirt”), suti (“suit”), soksi (“socks”), tai (“tie”), picha (“picture”), chai (“tea” or “chai”)
Hint: try sounding them out phonetically, remembering that Kenyans speak English with a British accent – Rs following vowels are generally dropped. You can consult the Pronunciation Guide at the end of this article for help as well.
Swahili Pronunciation is Easy
There are only five basic vowel sounds in Kiswahili, and they are similar to the Spanish and Italian vowels. Most of the consonants in Swahili can be found in English, too. Plus, written Swahili is phonetic, meaning you can pronounce nearly any written word you see, once you learn a few pronunciation rules.
See the Swahili Pronunciation Guide I’ve provided at the end of this article for all the details on Swahili pronunciation.
Asking Questions in Swahili? That’s Easy Too!
With Swahili you don’t need to learn any additional “question” words, such as est-ce que in French, and you don’t need to change around the order of words like when we ask a question in English. Instead, simply change your inflection to move upwards at the end of the phrase to indicate a question. If you find this odd, consider the English phrase “He is visiting soon” and think of how you can turn it into a question just by changing your inflection.
Note: In formal Swahili, you can preface a question with the word Je (For example: Je, unajua Kiingereza? – “Do you know English?”), but in casual conversation, it is not necessary. You will be understood if you simply pay attention to your inflection.
My 3 Top Tips for Learning Swahili Through Immersion in Kenya
I’ve learned Swahili by living in Kenya, so I’d like to share some insider tips on learning Swahili, in case you’d like to do something similar.
(In the next section, I’ll share some of my favourite Swahili courses and resources that you can use if you’re planning to learn Swahili at home.)
1. Listen to How Native Swahili Speakers Speak English
Since so many English-speaking Kenyans often learn Swahili first, the way they speak English is usually based on direct translations of Swahili. The way they speak English can help you with your understanding of Swahili grammar. One example that comes to mind is whenever I hear someone say in English “You’re being called.” This is almost always said in the passive form, rather than the more active “Someone is calling you.” This comes from a translation of the Swahili phrase Unaitwa, which naturally is a passive construction.
Another example is how Kenyans will ask “Are you taking coffee?” or “Are you taking tea?” rather than what we might say in the US, “Are you having/drinking coffee?”
This is also a direct translation from Swahili. The verb “take” is chukua, so you might say, Unachukua kahawa?
2. Be Aware of the Different Regions in Kenya
For those who are visiting Kenya hoping to practice Swahili, you will get a different experience depending on which part of Kenya you visit.
Those at the Kenyan coast will speak more proper or “clean” Swahili (Swahili sanifu) than those in Nairobi, as this area is where the language originated. As an English speaker, I’ve found the Swahili spoken here to be very easy for me to understand, and likewise, the Kenyans at the coast seem to have an easier time understanding me.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s capital city Nairobi is known for “shang,” a kind of Kenyan slang that uses both English and Swahili words and is essentially its own dialect. Shang is hard to understand if (like me!) you’ve studied Swahili from more academic sources, or have spoken/studied a lot with coastal Kenyans who speak “clean” Swahili. However, if you’re interested in sounding more hip and less like a square, you might want to add a few shang phrases to your vocabulary.
3. Visit Remote Areas in Kenya Where Few People Speak English
Kenya is a hugely diverse country, and if you’re visiting, you owe it to yourself to see the rural countryside and learn more about the people and traditions outside of the urban centers. Since these rural areas are usually far removed from hubs of business, commerce, and globalization, it means that English is likely to be spoken much less frequently in these areas. People may tend to speak mainly in their mother tongue and use Swahili as a second language.
In a situation like this, you’ll be surrounded with new, different sounds from the local tribal languages. There are 43 different tribes in Kenya, which means 43 different local languages. These include Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Kisamburu, Kimaasai, and many many more. These languages are much less known to the average English speaker than Swahili, and they will probably sound more foreign. As you hear these local languages and as you are forced to speak in Swahili to be understood, you will start to appreciate any progress (however small) you have made in learning Swahili compared to another language that is totally foreign to you.
In other words, when it’s a choice between Swahili and the local language, Swahili will feel more comfortable to use!
Swahili Courses and Resources — So You Can Learn Swahili at Home
So, now you’re motivated to start learning Swahili on your own, where do you begin?
Free Resources for Learning Swahili
- SwahiliPod101. This podcast course would be my first recommendation for learning Swahili. Look for their beginner lessons first – they help you with basic pronunciation and greetings. This is a great way to get a first taste of the language, spoken by native speakers. This course teaches Kenyan Swahili. Take advantage of the week-long free trial, for great bite-sized listening comprehension videos, and get the most use out of it while you can. I wish I’d used this more when I was still on my free trial!
- LanguageTransfer Complete Swahili is an audio-based course where teacher Mihalis Eleftheriou provides a scaffolded, deconstructed look at the language with actual students for you to learn alongside. A great, easy-to-grasp approach that progresses logically. The only reason this isn’t listed as number 1 is because Eleftheriou isn’t a native speaker himself.
- DuoLingo Swahili
When I first started learning Swahili, the DuoLingo module did not exist. It’s a great tool, but a few things should be noted. First of all, this module is for Tanzanian Swahili. It’s essentially the same as Kenyan Swahili, but it helps to be aware of what some regional differences might be. Namely, Tanzanians are known to speak very proper or formal Swahili, like the kind that is spoken at the Kenyan coast. Meanwhile, Kenyans speak a bit more casually, especially around urban centers like Nairobi. Additionally, the Swahili DuoLingo module was perhaps taken out of beta a bit too soon. There are still a few mistakes in the more advanced lessons, but it is improving every day. There is no audio yet for this module. It’s not the biggest problem, since Swahili is a phonetic language. However, for this reason, I highly recommend getting started with the SwahiliPod101podcast first.
- The BBC has a Swahili YouTube channel called Dira la Dunia. This is more advanced, and uses very formal news jargon – not super colloquial.
- An easier YouTube channel for beginners is Swahili Fairy Tales, geared towards children, with English subtitles
Paid Resources for Learning Swahili
- italki. italki, of course, remains a fantastic resource (here’s the Fi3M review of italki). I’ve been working with a Swahili tutor named Jackie, from Kenya. Due to the strength of the US dollar compared to the Kenyan or Tanzanian currency, you can find a private Swahili tutor for an excellent rate. I currently pay $5 USD for a 30-minute casual conversation practice lesson, an incredible bargain!
- Teach Yourself: Complete Swahili by Joan Russell.
This textbook and accompanying audio was a huge help to me as I was starting to learn the language. Note that this also mainly deals with Tanzanian Swahili, but is easily applied to the Swahili spoken in Kenya.
Getting Started with Swahili
Here are a few basics and “survival phrases” to get you started with learning Swahili:
Swahili Pronunciation Guide
There are five basic vowels in Swahili:
- a – “ah” as in “father”
- e – “eh” as in “get” (sometimes more of an “ey” sound like “hey”)
- i – “ee” as in “see”
- o – “oh” as in “gopher”
- u – “oo” as in “tooth”
The “y” sound behaves similarly to how it does in English, and blends with other letters, rather than standing on its own as a separate syllable.
There are no diphthongs/blended vowels, so when you see two vowels next to each other, pronounce them both in succession. Examples:
- Kiingereza – kee-eeng-er-EZ-ah (“English language”)
- Nimesahau – nee-meh-sah-HA-oo (“I forget/I have forgotten”)
In addition to the vowel sounds, here are some tips with the consonant sounds in Swahili:
- m/n – When an “m” or “n” precedes a consonant, in most cases the syllable is hummed with a nasal sound.
- Mzungu – mmZOONG-oo (“white person”)
- ndogo – nnDOH-go (“small”)
- dh – “th” as in “this”.
- ng’ – This is perhaps the one sound that can be really foreign to English speakers. Think of the “ng” in “song” and try to imitate that when you see ng’.
The stress comes on the penultimate syllable of every word
*kitabu – kee-TAH-boo (“book”)
*twiga – TWEE-gah (“giraffe”)
Formal Greetings in Swahili
- Habari? – “How are you?” (literally “news”)
- Mzuri – “good/well” (in response to Habari?)
- Sana – “a lot/very/very much”
- Hujambo/Hamjambo? – “How are you?” (singular/plural)
- Sijambo/Hatujambo – “I’m fine/we’re fine”
Informal Greetings in Swahili
- Sasa? – “What’s up?” (literally “now”)
- Niaje? – “How are you?”
- Mambo? – “What’s up?” (literally “things”)
- Vipi? – “How’s it going?”
- Poa – “good/cool” (response to Vipi?)
Basic Swahili Vocabulary
- Ndiyo – “Yes”
- Hapana – “No”
- Asante – “Thank you”
- Karibu – “Welcome/You’re welcome” (also: “close” / “near”)
- Mzungu – “White person” (Expect to hear this a lot!)
- Twende – “Let’s go”
- Maji – “Water”
- Chakula – “Food”
- Tafadhali – “Please”
- Sawa – “Okay”
- Samahani – “Excuse me”
- Pole – “Sorry (to express sympathy)”
- Rafiki – “Friend”
- Nataka – “I want…”
- Nataki hii – “I want this one”
- Nipe… – “Give me…”
- Ngapi? – “How much (e.g. How much is it?)”
- Ghali sana! – “Too expensive!”
- Bei nzuri – “Good price”
- Kidogo – “A little”
- Unajua Kiingereza? – “Do you know English?”
- Sijui – “I don’t know”
- Sielewi – “I don’t understand”
- Useme polepole – “Could you speak slowly please”
- Naitwa ___ – “My name is __”
- Wapi – “Where?”
- (Choo) iko wapi? – “Where is the (toilet)?”
- Unatoka wapi? – “Where do you come from?”
- Natoka Marekani – “I come from the USA”
- Kwa heri – “Goodbye”