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Learn Swahili | ROSETTA STONE®
Discover the best way to learn Swahili online. Our dynamic, contextualized lessons teach beginners to speak and read the Swahili language.Try Our Free Demo
Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, comes from the Arabic word sahil which means boundaries or coast. It’s a fitting name for a language that began as part of the Bantu language family, spoken by liberation fighters during apartheid, but has expanded into countries throughout the Great Lakes region of Africa. Swahili is now the official language of the African Union and is the lingua franca throughout eastern and south-eastern Africa. While it’s difficult to get exact estimates, linguists believe there are anywhere from 50 to 100 million speakers of Swahili.
For beginning learners, Swahili is a very approachable language for several reasons. Like English, Swahili has no lexical tone, and Swahili words are usually pronounced exactly the way they are written. Swahili is also influenced significantly by other languages, with as much as 30% of its vocabulary derived from Arabic as well as words borrowed from Persian, English, Portuguese, German, and French.
At Rosetta Stone, we believe that learning Swahili should be about more than speaking the words. That’s why our contextualized lessons focus on building your confidence speaking Swahili in real-world situations, with an immersive environment rich with audio and visual cues that stimulate deeper learning. Our goal is to help our language learners thrive in conversations by focusing on speak the language, not just the words.
The Origins and History of the Swahili Language
Today, Swahili is spoken by more people than Korean or Italian, but its rise in popularity can be traced back to colonial times. Local inhabitants used Swahili to communicate, but it was actually Christian missionaries and other travelers who contributed to its spread throughout regions of Africa. As colonization took hold on the continent, standardizing Swahili became a priority. At that time, Zanzibar was a hub of commerce and so the dialect in use there, Unguja, became the standard for spoken Swahili in 1928. Tanzania’s efforts to promote Swahili contributed to its spread throughout Zambia, Malawi, South Africa, and neighboring regions.
Swahili is now a second language widely spoken by millions in the African Great Lakes where it is an official or national language. In 1985, Swahili further cemented its status as the lingua franca when it was made a compulsory subject in all Kenyan schools. Today 80% of Tanzanians and nearly half of the 66 million Congolese speak Swahili in addition to their first language.
Which countries speak Swahili?
While it’s difficult to get exact estimates of the numbers of native Swahili speakers, the five eastern provinces of the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) all speak Swahili as a first or second language. Here are the countries where Swahili is an official or national language:
Some consider Comorian, spoken as an official language in the Comoros Islands, as a dialect of Swahili, but authorities consider it a distinct language.
With languages like Swahili, where many countries speak it as a second language in addition to their own dialects, it’s important to perfect your pronunciation. That’s why Rosetta Stone embeds a patented speech recognition engine called TruAccent® into every Swahili lesson, giving learners a chance to get feedback on their pronunciation in real time. When it’s your turn to speak for yourself in Swahili, Rosetta Stone wants you to feel comfortable saying it like a local.
The Best Way to Learn Swahili
If you’re still trying to decide how to get started learning Swahili, you should know that most language learning programs and linguists agree that the key to speaking Swahili is to commit to practice daily. Gamified solutions for vocabulary certainly seem fun, but they often leave out essential components of language learning like pronunciation, feedback, and how to handle conversations that don’t follow a script. Here’s how to get the most out of your Swahili lessons.
1. Start with Swahili sounds
Like most languages, Swahili has both vowels and consonants. The Swahili alphabet includes 23 single letters and nine digraphs, with the stress in Swahili words usually falling on the second to last syllable. Swahili is a straightforward language in that it does not use tones, but some of the consonant combinations can be tricky and will take some practice. It may be useful to listen to Rosetta Stone Stories in Swahili to get a feel for the cadence of the language before you start to practice Swahili sounds on your own.
2. Don’t get confused by Swahili vowels
Unlike English, two or three written vowels that follow each other in Swahili never merge together to form a single sound. Each vowel keeps its sound and should be pronounced accordingly. For example, ou is pronounced "o-oo" as in "go," while au is pronounced "a-oo" as in "cow.” Rosetta Stone understands that the best way to break old habits of pronunciation and establish new ones is to practice speaking Swahili daily. That’s why your language lessons sync across devices, letting you learn Swahili on-the-go whenever and wherever it’s convenient for you.
3. Focus on learning Swahili phrases in context
In order to thrive in real-world situations, you should focus on learning the building blocks of conversations. Rosetta Stone uses a Dynamic Immersion® method that helps you learn Swahili words and phrases in context, preparing learners for the unscripted interactions you’ll encounter in everyday life.
Here are a few Swahili phrases you might find helpful:
Unazungumza Kiswahili? (Do you speak Swahili?)
Nimefurahi kukutana na wewe (Pleased to meet you)
Learning these Swahili words and phrases in the context of the situations in which you’d use them, from the market to a casual meeting, will help you connect Swahili to other cues that stimulate recall so you can understand and be understood in real-world conversations.
Is Learning the Swahili Language Difficult?
For most language learners, the first question that comes to mind is whether a language is difficult or particularly challenging to learn. While Swahili has the most similarities to Arabic vocabulary and French grammatical structure, it can still seem familiar and accessible to English speakers.
Here are a few reasons language learners choose Swahili.
Swahili grammar is simple
One hallmark of Swahili is that, unlike English, Swahili grammar is consistent and there are very few exceptions to the grammatical rules. For instance, vowels only have one sound, and while there are 8-10 noun classes, they can be systematically memorized and applied. In fact, those who appreciate logic, rules, and the comfort of systems often say they find Swahili’s regularities soothing.
Immerse yourself in the Swahili language
As Swahili has spread across Africa, it’s become an increasingly popular language in music, movies, and the arts, as well as radio and television. This makes it easy for language learners to immerse themselves in Swahili, picking up nuances of the language and culture in lyrics and dialogue that might be missed in traditional lessons. There are also references to Swahili in several popular songs and musicals, including Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl” (Nakupenda pia, nakutaka pia, mpenzi we which is “I love you, and I want you, my dear!”) and the Lion King’s trademark characters like Simba (lion), Rafiki (friend), and even the phrase “Hakuna Matata” (no troubles or no problems).
Swahili shares similarities with English
There are some things that Swahili and English share, including the same language class. The two languages also have structural similarities, although these are less pronounced. In Swahili, inflection and derivation have a familiar but more decisive role than in English. There are characteristics that Swahili does not share with English as well, including verb structures and typology (written script). Traditional Swahili script was derived from Arabic but became more closely associated with Roman script within the last century.
Swahili borrows words from other languages
While Swahili does borrow vocabulary from other languages, it’s Arabic and Persian that have had the greatest influence. Swahili numbers are a good example of this because, while the words for one (moja), two (tatu), and three (nne) are from Bantu, six (sita), seven (saba) and nine (tisa) are borrowed from Arabic. The Swahili words, chai (tea), achari (pickle), and serikali (government) are from Persian and were likely added to the language through centuries of interaction with Persian merchants. You’ll also find several Swahili words sound familiar because they are derived from Portuguese, English, or German.
Advantages of Learning Swahili
Every language learning journey is different, but we all share commonalities in why we might choose to learn to speak a second language. Whether it’s for professional reasons like career advancement or personal motivations like travel, learning Swahili can enrich your life in a myriad of ways.
Not convinced yet that Swahili is the right second language for you? Here are a few more reasons to add speaking Swahili to your repertoire of skills.
Swahili is widely-spoken
Swahili is spoken by over 100 million people in Africa, and as a lingua franca of the region, it’s recognized by media organizations like the BBC, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle who are all trying to build a Swahili audience on the African continent. If you’re looking to launch a career in diplomacy, media, or business in eastern Africa, learning Swahili will be invaluable.
Learning Swahili makes travel in Africa easier (
If you’re traveling in East Africa in the Great Lakes region or other areas of southeast Africa like Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, or Mozambique, speaking Swahili is vital. Because Kenya is the largest economy in East and Central Africa with a booming telecommunications industry, Swahili may be particularly useful for those who travel or do business there.
Swahili can help researchers and academics
There is a large body of work being conducted on the Africa continent both in the academic and medical fields as well as in digital information and big data. As Africa’s markets evolve, knowing Swahili will be an important way to provide critical insights and credibility to that research.
Swahili is gaining influence in the tech world
As parts of Africa, especially Kenya, experience an IT and tech boom, so will the Swahili language. The rise of technology empowers media and the arts, increasing exposure to information and encouraging creativity, expressed through Swahili. “Swahilihood” is a term used to describe the flourishing tech-culture scene that has already started to make appearances online.
Knowing Swahili is essential for teachers in Africa
Swahili is a required subject in Ugandian and Kenyan schools, and it plays an important role not only in academic life but as part of public discourse and government business. Many countries are promoting Swahili as a way to unify African nations and increase their influence, so it’s likely that the need for teachers to speak Swahili will increase in the coming decade as Africa’s economy grows.