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How to Learn Swahili — A Quick Guide

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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 3 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 however you want 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!

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!

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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.

Noun classes are like genders in other languages, except there are 18 of them, with about 10 of them in very common use (the others are rarer but you need to know them anyway).

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 Swahili: The Complete Course for Beginners
Colloquial Swahili: The Complete Course for Beginners
Colloquial Swahili: The Complete Course for Beginners

Have a look at our Swahili Grammar Cheat Sheet to understand how the noun classes work.

Swahili grammar cheat sheet screenshot

Drill Swahili sentences with Glossika

Use Glossika to learn useful Swahili phrases as spoken by a native.

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?

Try Glossika for a week — for free!

Sign up with the link below and get a week’s free trial of the biggest sentence bank site out there.

Get a Swahili tutor on italki.

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 $10 in italki credits — enough for two classes!

Get a tutor online for as little as $4/hour from the best out there — italki. (Use this link for $10 credit after your first purchase of credits.)

Don’t worry about pronunciation!

Just a word that you don’t really need to stress too much about Swahili pronunciation.

Swahili pronunciation is one of the easiest I’ve encountered in any language. I’d say it’s about as easy to pronounce as Bahasa Indonesia, one of the simplest languages to pronounce I’ve encountered.

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.

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

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