How to Learn Swahili — How We’d Do It Again

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A friend asked me “How do I learn Swahili in three months?” So I wrote this quick guide on “How to learn Swahili” for him.

Generally, I don’t like to make promises about learning a language in 30 days or three months or whatever. How long it takes to learn a language depends on your goals, commitment, general ability with languages, and specific understanding of this language.

But if you want to know how to learn Swahili, I’d recommend this general approach in this document. This is based on my experience of learning conversational Swahili, which I could use in all my daily life, including a few complicated conversations with friends about things like the meaning of life, relationships, and motorcycles… the usual things I talk about!

Basically, if we had to learn Swahili again from scratch — this is how I’d do it.

In reality we did it mostly like this, but the one thing I underestimated was the importance of Swahili noun classes. Learn those!

A matatu near Mombasa. Mombasa is a good place for how to learn Swahili
A matatu near Mombasa. Mombasa is a good place to learn Swahili

So here it is — my guide on how to learn Swahili in a nutshell.

How to Learn Swahili — Overview

Here’s what I’d recommend quickly for your Swahili study plan.

Firstly, learn Swahili grammar. It’s not very hard. But it’s important to know about noun classes, which can trip many a Swahili student up. You also have to learn the usual suspects of sentence structure and so on.

While you’re doing this, learn Swahili greetings. You need to know greetings because they can get really complicated! The to-and-fro of a Swahili greeting exchange is really fun and not very hard. Check out our guide on how to say “hello” in Swahili — and be surprised with just how many ways there are.

Secondly, build up an arsenal of vocabulary and grammar. Do this by drilling sentences.

Finally, get a tutor. Swahili isn’t hard, but a lot of your grammar and vocab will only fall in place once you try to put it in use. Plus, you’ll get to meet some interesting people!

Learn the basics of Swahili grammar (especially noun classes)

The hardest thing about Swahili is the noun classes. Apart from that, I would classify it as a fairly easy language.

Here are the key things you have to learn about Swahili grammar:

  • Verbs are conjugated by modifying the parts at the beginning, in contrast with Romance languages (like French/Spanish etc.). For example, a verb root for “to want” kutaka, and you conjugate this to being “I want” as being ninataka, which breaks down into ni-na-taka, meaning “I-present tense-want”
  • There are no “genders” as such, but there are 18 “noun classes” (and ~10 in very common use) which modify verbs, adjectives, and pronouns.
  • There are no tones (like many other Bantu languages) or cases (like Russian/German)
  • Many words are borrowed from Arabic. So, if you know Arabic (or even Persian), some words will seem familiar.

To learn Swahili Grammar, use this book from the Routledge Colloquial series to introduce yourself to the grammar. It does it in a gentle way. We generally like the Routledge series because you can get it all on Kindle (great for travelling), and the audio is easily available online on their website.

Colloquial Swahili: The Complete Course for Beginners (Colloquial Series)
Colloquial Swahili: The Complete Course for Beginners (Colloquial Series)
Colloquial Swahili: The Complete Course for Beginners (Colloquial Series)
Colloquial Swahili: The Complete Course for Beginners (Colloquial Series)

Have a look at our Swahili Grammar Cheat Sheet to understand how the noun classes work. This gives you an idea of the size of the issue, but you need to read the book to understand it.

Swahili grammar cheat sheet screenshot
Swahili grammar cheat sheet

Set up an Anki deck for your Swahili vocabulary

Swahili was my seventh or eighth language, but it was the first one that I used Anki with — And I really regretted not setting up Anki earlier!

Check out our guide to getting started with Anki.

A couple of things I always want to repeat

  • Set up your own decks. Don’t go looking for other people’s decks to start with.
  • Use the Basic + Reversed cards, so you can get drills both ways.
  • Control how many new cards you add a day. 10 a day is great. If you feel overwhelmed, set it to zero so you just review for a while.
  • Add audio — your own voice! Yes, it’s ok to mispronounce it initially.
Swahili anki flashcard - for learning swahili quickly
One of my Swahili Anki flashcards

Learn and Drill Swahili sentences with Glossika

One of the best ways to get familiar with Swahili is to just listen to it!

We use Glossika to learn useful Swahili phrases as spoken by a native. If you want to know our full thoughts on Glossika, check out our Glossika review.

Glossika is a sentence bank where you don’t learn words, you learn whole sentences. You learn them the same as words, but they just teach you brief phrases, adding to complexity as time goes on. Confused? Give it a try and it’ll make more sense.

Try Glossika for a Week for Free

Try Glossika’s method of teaching language through thousands of sample sentences. Learn languages by sentences spoken by native speakers in over 60 languages.

After your weekly trial it’s $10 a month for just one language. You can also buy the full pack for access to all languages.

In general, use Glossika to learn 5-10 new sentences a day, and add words that are new to your Anki deck.

Get a Swahili tutor on italki

Get a tutor as soon as you know a few hundred words. There’s no faster way to expose your weaknesses than by trying to have a low-pressure conversation with a tutor who just wants to help.

We love using tutors online even when we’re in the same country — it sounds crazy, but it just makes life so much more convenient.

The italki system is like Airbnb for tutors — you can quickly judge who you want to learn from by watching their intro videos and reading their ratings and reviews.

The tutors on italki are frequently affordable — they start from as little as US$5 a class (of 30-60 minutes) — which means that the credits you’ll get with the below link are good for one to two classes!

Get $5 in italki credits — enough for a trial class!

Get a tutor online for as little as $4/lesson from italki with $5 in credits after your first purchase of $20 of credits.

Don’t over-stress Pronunciation

Just a word that you don’t really need to stress too much about the difficulty of Swahili pronunciation. You do need to make an effort to pronounce Swahili correctly, but compared to many languages, Swahili pronunciation is easy.

Swahili pronunciation is one of the easiest I’ve encountered in any language. I’d say it’s about as easy to pronounce as Japanese, which is easy to pronounce (but that’s the only thing easy about it!). Swahili pronunciation is easy definitely easier than Spanish, French, German, and Italian (which I mention as many have studied these).

Secondly, people in East Africa are very chill. It’s not like Germany or France, where people have extremely high standards in pronunciation (sorry guys, the Germans and French I know are chill, but it’s in Germany and France that I met the people most likely to talk about people having “accents” and so on).

If you want to know how to learn Swahili like a local, it’s more important that you learn as many local phrases and expressions as possible and learn how to sound like a local through intonation. It takes practise, of course.

As long as you’re making an effort to make the Swahili words sound natural, you’re probably intelligible enough.

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