Swahili (Kiswahili among its speakers) is a Bantu language spoken in East and Central Africa. It is the official language in Tanzania, and though only recognized officially as a national language in Kenya, it already functions as a second official language and structures to make it an official language are being put in place. It is one of the four national languages of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire); the others being Kikongo, Tshiluba and Lingala. Swahili is also widely used in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and in parts of Somalia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and the Comoro Islands.

Probably because of the long history of contact between the east African Coast (home of Swahili first language speakers), its origin, historical spread, etc have been subjects of debate for along time among scholars. As such, it is not uncommon to find information that looks very different when searching different sources. With regard to its origin, for example, three main theories have been fronted over time: Swahili is a language of Arabic origin, Swahili is a mixture of Arabic and Bantu languages, and Swahili is a Bantu language. While it is a known fact that languages in contact always influence each other, some people have chosen not to take that into account when commenting about Swahili. For instance, since Arabs are known to have traveled to many parts of the world, why is it that they apparently found it needful to “donate” their language to the East African coast and nowhere else? Were people in the East African coast not communicating among themselves before the arrival of Arabs and other visitors?  Suffice it to say that there is evidence from linguistic research showing that Swahili is a Bantu language. Like many other languages of the world have done, Swahili has borrowed heavily with the main sources being Arabic and several other languages, and in fact that has tremendously aided its rapid development.

After Arabic, Swahili is the most widely used African language but the number of its speakers is another area in which there is little agreement. The most commonly mentioned numbers are 50, 80, and 100 million people. Considering the populations of the countries in which the language is spoken, as well as the percentage of its speakers in those countries, it is not unrealistic to say that the numbers are much higher. It is also important to consider pockets of its speakers in the Arab world, and in big cities in the west. Swahili has spread far and wide to the extent that its speakers are advised not to speak badly of people anywhere because you never know who is listening. Many Swahili speaking interlocutors going about their normal activities have been approached by people they least expected would know a word they were saying in Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Another significant fact is that a vast majority of the 100 million plus speakers of Swahili speak other first languages. The number of its native speakers has been conservatively placed at just under 2 million. It is, therefore, largely a second or third language to many of its speakers. Given its spread in East Africa, and the way it is being acquired, it is increasingly turning out to be a second first language for a number of people. Several factors contributed to the spread of Swahili from the coast of East Africa to the hinterland and beyond. The most significant are trade, missionary activities, the spread of Islam, and colonial administration, especially in Tanzania. Later, the main factors included the struggle for independence, service delivery and the quest for unity in the post-independence era, and commerce. The media, as well as education systems played a critical role in cementing the place of the language in the lives of East Africans.

Swahili culture is a very good blend of the original coastal ways of life and the influence from the many different cultures that the Swahili have come into contact with. These include non coastal African cultures and traits from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula, India, and Portugal. These can be witnessed in their early buildings, in foods, music, dress code etc. Whether there still remains a pure Swahili culture unadulterated by the wider Swahili speaking peoples is also a subject of much debate.

Swahili has developed to become a very popular African language, taught in many leading academic institutions in Africa, Europe, America and Asia. It is offered as subject of study in prestigious universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and many others. It is estimated that close to 100 institutions teach Swahili in the US alone. Swahili has been taught in SOAS at the University of London since the 1930s. It is also taught in Canada, Germany, Poland, Mexico, Russia, Japan, India, and many other countries.

The broadcast media have also contributed immensely to the spread and popularization of Swahili. It is probably the most widely used African language in radio broadcasts in the world. You can tune in to Swahili programs in major broadcasting houses like VOA (America), BBC (England), and Deutsche Welle (Germany). It is also heard in broadcasts in India, Japan, and China, not to mention the many that use it in Africa. Swahili’s international appeal has also been helped by the use of its phrases in a number of popular films like the Lion King, and Out of Africa. Renowned musicians like Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, Miriam Makeba and others have used Swahili in some of their compositions.

Overall, there are many reasons that attract people to learn Swahili. Specific reasons that have been cited to be a motivating factor for many who enroll to study Swahili include: Its usefulness for research and other travels in East and Central Africa, a long written literary tradition, its being considered (by some) as a window to the African culture, its appeal and the view that it is easy to learn. Many who have studied Swahili as a foreign language are continuously finding it useful in voluntary work and in the job market, especially among the many organizations that are getting involved in several projects in Africa. Many who go ahead to establish organizations working in East and Central Africa, either driven by social entrepreneurial goals or the traditional Aid Organizations, have also attested to its usefulness in penetrating the region.

 A lot has been written about Swahili language and culture and many useful links are included here to guide you if you would like to read more.

Website created by Sangai Mohochi and Michael Wairungu
Stanford University Swahili Department
Currently administered by Sangai Mohochi and Yussuf Hamad