Learn Swahili—Resources and Plan

How to learn Swahili

Updated: 5 December 2018

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?

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.

Is Swahili vocabulary hard?

Swahili has relatively few words that are like English words (cognates).

Some common words:

  • Jambo – Hello/How are you?
  • Mambo – 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

Not much in common. Luckily, all these words sound not difficult to say (and also sound awesome)

Is Swahili hard to pronounce?

No, Swahili is not hard to pronounce, but has some features that make it not entirely intuitive to the English speaker. I’d say it’s roughly as hard to pronounce as Spanish for an English native speaker.

The short vowels (a, e, i, o, u) are pronounced loosely like they are in Spanish or Indonesian. 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 asphirated ‘kh’ sound. It’d be familiar to you if you have learned Arabic, Hebrew, German, Dutch or something else.
  • 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.

Is the Swahili written form difficult?

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.

Is Swahili grammar hard?

No, Swahili’s grammar is not hard. It’s not a walk in the park, but it’s not crazy.

The hardest part – “noun classes“. Depending on the prefix each noun has (the first 1-2 letters, nouns are grouped into 14 major classes. These are things like “person”, “tree”, “lion”, “place” and a few more abstract ones like “lion” or “key”. These work like genders in gendered languages, and determine the way other parts of the sentence are formed, like verbs and adjectives. This looks hard. I guess we’ll figure it out, and work out some hack to simplify learning it.

Plurals are part of how classes are used. E.g. book, kitabu becomes vitabu for books because of its class. Car, gari becomes magari for cars.

The easy parts – there aren’t any complex grammar features like cases (like you get in German). 

There IS a bit of conjugation, but it’s super organized and easy to figure out, and can be considered to be similar to the way we say in English “I eat” vs “I will eat”, just joining those sentence elements together into one word, and without the complexity of “eat” randomly becoming “ate” or “eaten” for past and perfect tenses.

  • Verbs all are written with a ku prefix, which disappears when we use the word. In the below examples, kuenda is to go, and kuelewa is to understand.
  • I am going = ninaenda. This is made of ni for I, na for present tense, and enda for the verb (from kuenda)
  • I understand = ninaelewa. This is from ni for I, na for present tense, and elewa for the verb (from kuelewa). Note it’s the same as ninaenda, but you replace the verb part enda with elewa.
  • You understand = unaelewa. The u indicates ‘you’, replacing the ni.
  • I understood = nilielewa. Same as ninaelewa, but replacing present tense na with simple past tense li.

Arabic and Swahili

Something that people often ask is: is that language related to xyz other language? It’s mostly asked because people want to try to develop a sense of familiarity. But it’s also useful to know that past studies of languages will be helpful for future ones.

Swahili has been greatly influenced by Arabic. There’s an enormous 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 impact is from the contact of Arabian traders with the inhabitants of the east coast of Africa over many centuries. In the early 19th century, the spread of Swahili inland received a great impetus from its being the language of the Arab ivory and slave caravans, which penetrated as far north as Uganda and as far west as Congo.

The oldest preserved Swahili literature, which dates from the early 18th century, is written in the Arabic script, though the language is now written in the Roman alphabet. Some poets and scholars do write in the Arabic script even today, however.

Swahili was later adopted by European colonialists, who used it as the language of administration in Tanganyika, thus laying the foundation for its adoption as a national language of independent Tanzania. In Kenya and Uganda, the tendency has now become to emphasize the use of Swahili, even though other local languages were encouraged during the colonial period.

What are our Swahili language-learning resources?

Swahili Textbooks

We usually like to start our language learning process with a textbook. This helps us learn the basic grammar as well as giving us a functioning vocabulary.

A textbook also helps to set boundary posts for what we’re likely  to need to learn.

Online resources for learning Swahili

First up, we need to find a good online resource to take us through basic grammar, phrases and vocabulary.

Learn101 – this is a cool free resource going over pretty much every word, phrase and resource you’d need to learn Swahili. I think we’ll start here.

Duolingo – We’re not the biggest fans of Duolingo, but we’re very impressed that it has Swahili in there! It’ll probably go onto our phones as PART of a comprehensive study program.

SwahiliPod101 – a great resource with over 700 audio and video lessons, plus PDF lesson notes.

Swahili Language Tutors

Secondly, we need to find tutors. We can find these in person, in Tanzania, or online.

Online – italki is our favourite reference for online tutors. You can read more about it in our description of our favorite apps for language learning, but essentially it’s a convenient way to set up tutor conversation for around $5-10/hour.

In person, we’ll need to scour the local papers.

Swahili Language Schools

There are a number of great language schools. More on this later.

Home stays

One of the best ways to learn a language is to live with people speaking it. We’ll be looking into how to find a homestay in Tanzania. It can be a mixed blessing of course, because we wouldn’t be in as good control of our diets or lifestyle in general, but it’s something we can investigate.

What’s next?

Currently, we’re planning to be in Tanzania in March 2019. We’ll aim to get there and get rolling as fast as possible.

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