Learning Swahili: An Overview

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Overview of learning swahili - why learn it and how hard it is. This is the reason you learn Swahili: to go visit and go on safari!

If you’re interested in learning Swahili you’re probably interested in whether it’s hard, whether other languages give you an advantage and how to learn it. We ddress all those questions here.

Wapiganapo tembo wawili ziumiazo nyasi.
When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets hurt.

-Swahili Proverb

Learning Swahili is one of our core missions in Discover Discomfort for 2019. It ties in with many of our other missions:

  • Becoming familiar with one aspect of African culture (east Africa, in this case)
  • Giving us a framework language for Kenya, where we’ll go for running training
  • Letting us use the platform that Arabic gives us

Here’s why we’re doing it, and our plan.

Why learn Swahili?

In considering what languages we’d have to learn to speak to anyone in the world, Swahili ranks pretty highly as a priority.

Firstly, Swahili is spoken by around 100 million speakers. Most of these don’t speak it as their primary language, but so many speak it as a secondary that it’s considered one of the primary lingua francas of east Africa.

Secondly, it lets us travel to a number of different countries we want to learn, and to interact with people we frankly haven’t had much opportunity to in our lives so far. These are Tanzania and Kenya primarily, and also Uganda and a number of other African countries like the DRC and Mozambique.

Africa is part of the world that we have never spent much time in, and thus has a lot of people with whom we’re pretty unfamiliar. One of our goals in Discover Discomfort is specifically to bridge these gaps caused by unfamiliarity and learn to see everyone as just different variants of ourselves – something we know intellectually, but that we want to really learn to feel.

Finally, it sounds cool and they speak it in The Lion King. This is pretty important to Jo.

How hard is Swahili to learn? Overall 3/5, “Somewhat hard”.

Swahili isn’t too hard to learn, especially if we’ve already been studying Arabic! According to the BBC, Swahili is the easiest African language to learn for English speakers.

We look at this briefly in the analysis of how difficult all the languages are, but let’s look at the core elements in more detail.

How hard is Swahili vocabulary? Quite hard (4/5 difficulty)

Swahili has relatively few words that are like English words (cognates). However, if you speak Arabic, you have a large leg up. You can even see that in a few common words:

  • Hujambo – Hello/How are you?
  • Mambo Vipi? – What’s up?
  • Sijambo – I am fine
  • Habari – How are you?
  • Nzuri – Fine
  • Kubwa/Kidogo – Big/Small
  • Jumatatu, Jumanne – Monday, Tuesday
  • Mimi, wewe: Me, You 
  • Chakula, kahawa, maji – food, coffee, water
  • Tofaa, chungwa, tende: apple, orange, date

Luckily, all these words sound not difficult to say (and also sound awesome). But there’s a lot of memorisation involved in learning it.

How hard is Swahili pronunciation? Easy (1/5 difficulty)

No, Swahili is not hard to pronounce. It’s very easy to pronounce, actually! Easier than Spanish or French for an English speaker, and about as hard as Bahasa Indonesia.

The short vowels (a, e, i, o, u) are pronounced loosely like they are in Spanish or Bahasa Indonesia. They can also be long vowels, where there are two in a row, they’re just extended in sound.

Consonants are mostly the same too, but there are some interesting rules in consonant combinations. The letter c is always accompanied by a h (forming the predictable ch sound), and th occurs more frequently, like in multi-syllabic words. Some of them are unusual sounds, described below:

  • gh‘, which is an aspirated ‘kh’ sound. It’d be familiar to you if you have learned Arabic, Hebrew, German, Dutch or something else.
  • j‘, which is halfway between a ‘j’ and a ‘y’. It sounds a bit like elle in Spanish.
  • r‘, which is a trilled r like in Spanish or Italian.
  • ng‘, which is like in ‘finger’, but can be used to start a word, or ‘ny‘, similar.
  • m‘ or ‘n‘ can be a syllable by themselves, especially when it’s at the beginning of a word.

How hard is Swahili’s written form? Easy! (1/5 difficulty)

Nope! It’s so easy, Swahili is 100% written the way it’s spoken, and spoken the way it’s written. Two letters are missing: Q and X.

How hard is Swahili grammar? Quite hard (4/5)

Swahili’s grammar is quite hard if you want to speak it correctly. Some people never learn it well, but we don’t take that path.

There are two things that make it hard: noun classes and verb forms.

Noun classes: This is the hardest part. Essentially, it means that Swahili is made up of 18 genders. You can kind of group them together, but there are still a lot.

Each of these “classes” has a separate plural form (most of the time; sometimes not), and has to agree with other words in the sentence like “is”, some verbs, and adjectives.

For example, if you say “that person was big” and “that tree was big”, you’ll find the words for “that”, “was” and “big” will all change shape as well.

Then, plurals look different too. “Orange” is chungwa and “book” is kitabu. But “oranges” is machungwa and “books” is vitabu.

These differences mean you have to memorise multiple tables that look like this:

And unfortunately that’s just an excerpt of the table!

Verb forms: This is the second hard part of Swahili.

On the face of it, conjugation in Swahili looks easy. You just stick in a prefix, tense marker and verb ending and you can make basic conjugations.

For example, the verb for “going” is enda. To say “I am going” you sai ninaenda. To say “you are going” you say unaenda, changing only the beginning ni to u. To say “I went” you say “nilienda”, changing the middle na to li.

Unfortunately this is just the beginning. There are many complicated tenses in Swahili that express uncertainty, things that haven’t happened but might still happen, things that have already finished in the past, and so on. Then there are negative forms, which look quite different.

Verbs in Swahili can look very long, containing lots of information.

Further, adding objects (like instead of “I bought a book” saying “I bought it“, or instead of “I bought food for my friend” saying “I bought her food”), means you have to know the noun classes above. No free lunch!

So it all gets very hard.

The easy parts – it lacks some things in other languages, like

  • No cases (in German, meaning the noun changes depending on its role in the sentence)
  • Very few irregular verbs: Extremely few, and they’re irregular because they’re very short. They’re the most common ones, so you can learn them by example.

The best part about Swahili grammar is low expectations of foreigners. People are surprised you know any more than greetings, so don’t worry if you get things wrong. This is quite different to France or Germany, where you generally have to have a high level for people to converse with you in the language.

Does Arabic help with learning Swahili?

If you know Arabic (we luckily just spent a few months on learning, watch our 60-day videos of us speaking here!), you have a slight head start in some Swahili vocab — though not grammar.

Swahili has been greatly influenced by Arabic in vocabulary. There’s a huge number of Arabic loanwords in the language, including the word swahili itself, which is from the Arabic sawāḥilī (a plural adjectival word meaning “of the coast”).

This happened because of traders who lived on the east coast of Africa for centuries. They added in a lot of words, enriching the language.

In Zanzibar, Arabic also had a huge influence via Islam.

In fact, the oldest preserved Swahili literature, which dates from the early 18th century, is written in the Arabic script, though it’s now written in the Roman alphabet. Some poets and scholars write in the Arabic script even today.

Some of the first things we noticed that came from Arabic were:

  • Greetings and everyday expressions (salam aleikum, habari = news, shukran =t hank you)
  • Many numbers, including the tens (ishirini = 20, thelathini = 30, arobaini = 40 etc.), and some of the digits (sifuri = 0, saba = 7)
  • A few foods (tofaa = apple, jibini = cheese, asali = honey)
  • A few verbs (-fikiri = to think, -ishi = to live)
  • Random other words (siasa = politics, rafiki = friend, dakika = minute, lugha = language, ka dhalika = etcetera)

Unfortunately there are very few words like these. It gives it a familiar sound at times, but it’s more like the influence of Greek on English. It’s cool if you know Greek, but just like you wouldn’t learn Greek as a stepping stone to English, you shouldn’t learn Arabic as a stepping stone to Swahili.

What are the best resources to learn Swahili?

The resources we’re using to learn Swahili are teachers, textbooks, flashcards and practise. We found a few good websites for it, and will share those in an upcoming post.

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