These are the Swahili resources we used to learn Swahili in two months in Tanzania and Kenya. They were a little more scarce than for other major languages. But the plus side was that many of these resources are free.
We worked on Swahili in mid 2019. Aside from our standard starter pack for languages of books, teachers, flashcards and Glossika, we also looked around the web for any Swahili language learning resources we could find. And these are our favourite resources and the best ones you’ll find for learning Swahili.
There are very few resources online to learning Swahili, compared to other major global languages like French, Chinese or Arabic. And very few free Swahili learning tools.
For example, when we were looking around for the best free resources for Egyptian Arabic, we had no trouble putting together that amazing list.
However, things get tougher for less widespread languages (like Swahili, even though it’s still a major African language).
That said, here are the best resources we found for Swahili.
The Ultimate Swahili Cheat Sheet — Our own Swahili resource! (Free)
This is something we made ourselves and sharing with Swahili language learners! This is the best summary of Swahili noun classes we’ve ever seen, because we made it ourselves.
It’s practical, not too brief, and not over-reduced.
Swahili is pretty complicated. There are TONS of rules. And plenty of exceptions.
So every time we learned a new rule, we created a summary of it, put down a table of rules, and have been putting it down in our cheat sheet.
The cheat sheet is just for noun classes, because they touch everything else in Swahili.
If you want more detail about how the noun classes work, check out our Swahili grammar guide.
Our own Swahili Grammar Guide
We finally put together a comprehensive (but easy to read) guide to Swahili Grammar. It’s much more comprehensive than the free noun classes cheat sheet above!
If you like the Swahili grammar cheat sheet, you’ll love the grammar guide!
Our grammar guide includes:
- Noun classes: Figuring out what class a noun belongs to, shortcuts to making adjectives, rules for prefixes and how to say “this”, “my” and “here” — in much more detail than the cheat sheet
- Verb conjugations: Simple tables for past, present and future, in the positive and negative sense
- Common tenses: saying “you really shouldn’t” and “I usually don’t”
- “To be”: Tables and rules for saying things like “I’ll be there”, “it’ll be raining” or “it wasn’t ready”
- Advanced tenses: saying when thing “just happened”, “already happened” or is “yet” to happen
- Object prefixes: Using particles to say “I want to eat it” or “I’ll give you your money”
- Modifying verbs: How to make “to wake up” into “to wake someone up” (without having to memorise a whole new verb)
My teacher and I spent a while putting this together so it’s not free.
Get our Swahili Learner’s Grammar Guide! — just US $12!
With the help of our favourite teacher, we put together this Swahili learner’s grammar guide. Learn Swahili noun classes, verb conjugation, and sentence structure all explained in simple terms with tons of examples.
This Swahili textbook is one of our favourite Swahili resources and is totally free to download!
At first we thought “Kansas University?” but then you know… this resource is CRAZY good. It’s hundreds of pages long, well-organised and all built into a lightweight PDF. I’m sure Kansas University must be a great place to learn Swahili.
The textbook has sixty five separate sections, all loaded with great content and vocabulary. It goes into great detail on useful things like
- Types of words that appear in noun classes with loads of examples
- Clear descriptions of all the demonstratives (this, that and the other)
- Ridiculous amounts of vocabulary that is hard to find anywhere else (for free, anyway!)
The part I like best is that it’s easily searchable for example sentences. Yes, you can do this in Google (or Kindle), but you can only search for entire words.
For example, I wanted to see how to use the verb “kuchelewa” (to be late). With Kindle, I’d have to search for various forms of the word (like “tutachelewa”, “we’ll be late”). In this PDF, I can just search for “-chelewa” and see what I get.
KIKO: Kiswahili Kwa Kombyuta, from the University of Georgia
This is a full course on Swahili with three years of materials from the University of Georgia.
It is really huge, with 18 chapters and 6 lessons in each one. That’s over a hundred lessons! They cover topics starting from introductions and going to advanced social topics like traditional medicine, marriages and so on.
What’s amazing is how rich this Swahili resource is. Every single lesson has a video, extensive grammar notes and a glossary. The videos come with transcriptions, exercises and lots of notes. And it’s all online for free.
I believe these are the materials for an actual university course, so if you want to go study Swahili somewhere, consider UGA.
This is a YouTube video series where a lecturer patiently goes over the many elements of Swahili grammar. I’ve watched a few and they’re great! There are fifty videos in the series. If you ever have a grammar issue you need to double check, it’s a great place to start.
Since Swahili is written in Latin script, it’s much easier for the English speaker to look over it and get a sense of it.
Occasionally I’d look up a word on Google to see how it worked, and the BBC often came up in my search results. So I’d read the article to see how much I could understand, or throw it into Google Translate to find out new words.
Here are some more tips to use Google Translate to learn any language (including Swahili).
Because the BBC is about content you already know about (if you know the news), but in a new language, it’s a great way to learn things you want to know without the double burden of finding out about new things at the same time.
If you haven’t heard of FSI, it’s how American spies (ok “employees of the Department of State”) learn languages.
Well, it’s how they did it in the 1950s, which is what vintage this material is from. Since then, it was made public domain. The result is about two years worth of learning materials with tons of examples and heaps of audio.
FSI is not great as a first port of call — I’d still recommend a textbook as an introduction.
Because the content is so old, you sometimes question if the language is dated. Like, I doubt “mambo vipi” is in there (it is, however, in our list of colloquial Swahili phrases to know).
On the other hand the content is extremely rich. The audio is extensive, and also free.
Very few people actually finish these. But if you get even just halfway through, you’ll know quite a lot of Swahili!
There are very few (almost none) Swahili dictionaries online.
Many of the ones online just use Google Translate via the API, so don’t give you important information about a word, like its plural form, noun class or example sentences.
One of the most important things a dictionary needs to do is describe the noun class. If you don’t do this, it’s like a French or Spanish dictionary not telling you the gender of a word, or a Chinese dictionary not telling you the tone.
The only dictionary I’ve found is this one. The interface isn’t great, it doesn’t have every word I need, and it’s online only (unless you want to download their Windows-only program,) and there’s no app, offline or online. But it’s free.
If not for this dictionary, you’ll probably have to buy a physical dictionary (not a bad choice). Or look our curated list of Swahili animal names!
As for sample sentences — some words in the dictionary have them, and some don’t. Unfortunately there aren’t as many Swahili resources as there are for other languages yet!