Jambo, rafiki! (Hello, friend!)

Swahili is spoken in many parts of East Africa. It is an official language in Kenya and Tanzania, where kids are required to study it in school alongside English, and the majority of people speak it fluently. Uganda has also adopted it as an official language, although its use is not yet as widespread there. Other areas where Swahili is spoken include the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as some parts of Rwanda and Burundi.

Although about 150 million East Africans speak at least some Swahili, only about 1 to 2 million learned it at home from their parents as their first language. Most people learn a local tribal language at home. It’s common for kids in Kenya and Tanzania to get an introduction to Swahili when they go with their parents to markets or other places where people from different ethnic groups interact. Since people often don’t know each other’s tribal languages, they speak to each other in the common language of Swahili.

Like English, Swahili has influences from many languages. The main influences are the Bantu languages (a family of more than 250 languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa) and Arabic. But if you start learning Swahili, you will eventually notice words with Portuguese, German and English origins. That’s because Swahili has been used widely for business and international trade, so it readily adopts useful words from other languages.

While a lot of people in East Africa also speak English (it’s an official language in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and widely taught in schools), Kenyans and Tanzanians tend to use Swahili more often in day-to-day conversations. So if you want to make someone smile, start a conversation with, “Jambo! Habari gani?” (“Hello! How are you?”)

Ready to learn some Swahili?’s GoAfrica section has a useful list a Swahili phrases for travelers. And has free language games you can play to familiarize yourself with basic Swahili.

Have fun exploring Swahili. Tutaonana! (See you soon!)

IMG_2475If you saw The Lion King, you already know the Swahili word for lion: simba.

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