This traveler’s guide to the Swahili language is designed to give those who plan to visit a Swahili-speaking country and want to connect deeper with the locals all the basic information they need.
Billy Oduory was born and raised in Nairobi, the one place where all dialects of Kiswahili are spoken. He studied Kiswahili from childhood in elementary and primary school. He also studied the language in secondary school as part of the curriculum in Kenya. He specializes in information systems at the University of Nairobi while working on other Kiswahili Language projects, including the Facebook Kiswahili translation program.
- Where is Swahili spoken?
- The difference between Swahili and Kiswahili
- The basics of the Swahili language
- Swahili pronunciation guide
- Common Swahili words and phrases for greetings and simple conversation
- Swahili words and phrases to use when ordering food
- Numbers in Swahili and phrases to use when shopping
- Swahili words and phrases you’ll need when moving around
- Animal names in Swahili
- Swahili words and phrases you’ll need while hiking and climbing
- Swahili words and phrases relating to lodging
- Swahili street slang you can use in casual conversation
Where is Swahili spoken?
Swahili is one of the official languages of the African Union (along with English, French, and Arabic) and is spoken by more than 200 million people. The United Nations estimates that, even though the Swahili language originated from East Africa, Swahili speakers can now be heard in more than a dozen countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Comoros, and even in Oman and Yemen.
Swahili or Kiswahili?
The term Swahili is only used by outsiders to describe the language and the people who speak it. The correct term for the language, as used by locals, is Kiswahili, but both Swahili and Kiswahili are used interchangeably around the world.
The basics of the Swahili language
Before you throw yourself into learning Swahili words and pronunciation, here are some rules of the Swahili language:
- Unlike English in which the plural is indicated by the letter “s” at the end of most words, in Swahili, the plural is marked by a prefix. For example, “Mtu” means a person, while “Watu” is the plural meaning people.
– Kuna mtu mmoja kwenye lango. (There is one person at the gate.)
– Kuna watu wengi kwenye lango. (There are people at the gate.)
- Swahili doesn’t have articles. There is no exact equivalents to “the” (a definite article) or “an” or “a” (indefinite articles) in Swahili.
Swahili pronunciation guide
- The best way to get your Swahili pronunciation right is to say the words as they are written on the page — in Swahili, there are no silent letters.
- To apply the appropriate stress in a Swahili word, look at its vowels. If the word has two consecutive vowels, this is where the stress will fall. For example, in the word “Maalum” (important), the stress falls on the first syllable.
- In Swahili, whenever two consecutive consonants occur in a word, no imaginary vowels should be added to make the pronunciation easier. For example, the word “Mji” (town/city) shouldn’t be pronounced “Muji.” Try to pronounce the “m” with your mouth closed so that the consonant makes a syllable on its own without a vowel.
- Swahili has no diphthongs, which means that sounds like “ai” like in “paid” or “ou” like in “bough” do not exist.
Here is a list of common sounds you should remember when pronouncing Swahili words.
|A||“a” as in pat|
|E||“e” as in pet, never “i” as in meet|
|I||“i” as in pick and pill, never “ai” as in pine|
|O||“o” as in pork|
|U||“u” as in put, never a short “u” sound like in cut|
|NY||“ñ” as in Kenya or mañana, the Spanish word for morning — for example, in Swahili, the term for monkey is nyani, so you should avoid saying “niyani” and try “ñani” instead|
|NG||“ng” as in jungle|
|DH||“dh” as in this|
|TH||“th” as in thought|
|CH||“ch” as in church|
|NG’||“ng” as in song |
To better understand the difference between “NG” and “NG'”, please refer to this Swahili language workbook
Common Swahili words and phrases for greetings and simple conversation
Formal and informal greetings are very similar in Swahili, so no one will fault you for using “Jambo” (hello) as your greeting in either setting or in any Swahili-speaking country.
You probably know the phrase “Hakuna matata” (no problem), but you can also try saying “Hakuna shida” (shida also means problem).
“Ni sawa” (it’s alright) is another phrase that you may use regularly.
The greetings in this guide will work everywhere and for every occasion.
(To say “thank you very much,” use the word “sana” after any of these three)
(Kujeni/njooni for the plurals)
(Endeni/Nendeni for the plurals)
|My name is…||Jina langu ni…|
|Nice to meet you||Nimefurahi kukutana nawe|
|How are you?||Habari yako/Habari gani?|
|How are you doing?||Unaendeleaje?|
|Where do you come from?||Watoka/Unatoka wapi?|
(Use “sana” after these to say “very good”)
(Use “sana” after these to say “very bad”)
(Use “Wa” in place of “M” for the plural)
(Use “Wa” in place of “M” for the plural)
(Use “Wa” in place of “M” for the plural)
(Use “Wa” in place of “M” for the plural)
(Use “Wa” in place of “M” for the plural)
(Good morning in Swahili is “Habari ya asubuhi”)
(Good afternoon in Swahili is “Habari ya Alasiri”)
(Good evening in Swahili is “Habari ya jioni”)
(Good night in Swahili is “Usiku mwema”)
Swahili words and phrases to use when ordering food
The most common food you will find in restaurants in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania is ugali (maize meal), which is often served with meat and greens, especially sukuma wiki (a dish with collard greens).
Table manners are taken seriously in the region, so you need to be familiar with common courteous Swahili words such as tafadhali (please), subiri (wait), and samahani (sorry/excuse me).
When visiting a restaurant, the following Swahili words and phrases will help you get the best service.
|What is on the menu?||Kuna nini kwa menu?|
|I am a vegetarian/vegan||Mimi sili nyama|
|Can I have the check please?||Nipe bili tafadhali?|
|The food is tasty||Chakula ni kitamu|
Numbers in Swahili and phrases to use when shopping
Photo: The Road Provides/Shutterstock
“Pesa” means money in Swahili, and most of the countries in East Africa use the shilling as their currency. In Congo, you will use the franc, commonly known as faranka.
In Swahili, once you can pronounce the numbers one through 10, the rest is a breeze. All you have to do is add the conjunction “na” (and) to get your numbers right. For example, 19 is “kumi (10) na tisa (9)”. One hundred twelve is “mia moja (100) na kumi (10) na mbili (2).”
Here is your guide to getting your numbers right and shopping easily in Swahili.
(“Mia mbili” is 200, “Mia tatu” is 300, etc.)
(“Elfu sita” for 6,000, “Elfu kumi” for 10,000, etc.)
|How Much?||Ni pesa ngapi?|
|I like this||Napenda hii|
|Can you please pack…||Tafadhali funga…|
|That’s too expensive||Hiyo ni ghali sana|
|I won’t take that||Sitachukua Hio|
Swahili words and phrases you’ll need when moving around
Moving around in Africa is easy when you have your own car, and with car rental companies in all the major cities, it’s easy to book a rental online and get it on arrival. Using public transportation will give you a better experience, however, which is why you will need to know how to tell a taxi/motorbike driver where you are headed.
Bodaboda (motorcycle riders) and tuktuk (three-wheeled motorbikes) are the best way to get around, and you can use taxi-hailing apps, such as Uber, Bolt, and Taxiye to request one just as you would a taxi.
Here are the key terms you need to know to get your directions and transportation right in Swahili.
|Airport||Uwanja wa ndege|
|I need to get to…||Nahitaji Kufika…|
(Or just say “fare”)
|Bus stop||Stendi ya basi|
|Rent a car||Kodi gari|
Animal names in Swahili
Photo: Daniel Aloisi/Shutterstock
Your visit to Africa won’t be quite complete until you have visited a Mbuga La wanyama (game park/reserve) and seen some of the continent’s iconic wildlife.
Here are the Swahili names for animals and other phrases that will come handy in the East African wilderness.
|Wild dog||Mbwa mwitu|
|Black Mamba||Mamba mweusi|
Swahili words and phrases you’ll need while hiking and climbing
The best hiking experiences in East Africa are to be found on the trails going up snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya.
Here are the Swahili translations for the common terms you will use while on a hiking trip. You can find more terms specifically related to hiking Kilimanjaro here.
|Water bottle||Chupa ya maji|
|I need to rest||Nahitaji kupumzika|
|Be careful||Kua mwangalifu|
|Give me a hand||Nisaidie|
Swahili words and phrases relating to lodging
To get your desired night’s rest, whether that’s a camp under the stars or a hotel, these are the terms you need to master.
|Room service||Huduma ya chumbani|
|I want to book a room||Nataka kukodi chumba|
|How much per night?||Ni pesa ngapi kwa siku?|
|One night||Usiku mmoja|
|Two days||Siku mbili|
|Single room||Chumba chenye kitanda kimoja|
|Double room||Chumba chenye vitanda viwili|
|Bed and breakfast||Kitanda na chakula cha asubuhi|
|Room key||Kifunguo cha chumba|
Swahili street slang you can use in casual conversation
The purest Swahili is spoken in the coastal region where most ethnic speakers also live. As you go further inland, the use of slang increases due to the influence of the local languages. In Kenya, there is a whole slang version of Swahili called Sheng’.
Here are some of the most widely used Swahili slang words.
|Hujambo? Sijambo||Are you alright? I’m alright|
(Plural: Hamjambo? Hatujambo)
A greeting used both formally and informally instead of “Jambo”
|Shikamoo? Marahaba||Same as above, but this greeting denotes respect and is used when addressing someone older than you|
Used as a greeting for “How are you?”
Common slang greeting for “How are you now?”
|Za sasa?||What’s new?|
|Za kwako?||What is your news?|
|Hali?/Hali gani?/Uhali gani?||How are you feeling?|
“Hali” means condition/state
It can be used as a quick reply to all the greetings above
|Tuko pamoja||We’re [in this] together.|
It can be used to mean “We agree,” or as a way of saying “Goodbye/See you later”
It’s used as a reply to any of the above greetings
|Nimetulia||I am relaxed/I am better|
|Salama (Salmini)||Safe/okay |
You can also use it in the same context as Nimetulia
(Say “Niko salama” for singular and “Tuko salama” if the greeting/question addresses a group)
|Hamna Noma||No problem|
|Kama Kawa||As usual|
It can be used as a response to slang greetings to mean “I’m all right.” You can also use it when referring to something nice
It’s often used to describe something nice, but it can also be used as the reply to all the aforementioned greetings to mean “I’m good”
It can be used interchangeably with “Freshi”
It can be used as a shortened version of “See you later”
|What do you think?|
|Sembe||Another term for ugali (maize meal)|
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Swahili unites speakers throughout a wide region of East Africa, from Zanzibar on the Indian Ocean to Congo in Central Africa. This wide adoption makes Swahili one of the major languages of the African continent; it is an official language of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, as well as of the African Union.Which African countries use Swahili? ›
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Mandarin (1,118 million speakers)
However, it's the most spoken language in the world if you count only first-language (native) speakers due to China's significant population. Mandarin is not actually a language, but a set of dialects of the Chinese language.
Swahili. Swahili is the language most linguists will think of when talking about lingua francas in Africa. It's co-official with English in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, and spoken by anywhere from 50 to 150 million people – the overwhelming majority as a second language.Are Swahili people African? ›
The Swahili people originate from Bantu inhabitants of the coast of Southeast Africa, in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique.
It's a rich mix of languages
Swahili is predominantly a mix of local Bantu languages and Arabic. Decades of intensive trade along the East African coast resulted in this mix of cultures. Besides Arabic and Bantu, Swahili also has English, Persian, Portuguese, German and French influences due to trade contact.
The half-million people known as Swahili live along the coastline of East Africa from Somalia to Mozambique.Is it difficult to learn Swahili? ›
How hard is it to learn? Swahili is said to be the easiest African language for an English speaker to learn. It's one of the few sub-Saharan African languages that have no lexical tone, just like in English. It's also much easier to read as you read out Swahili words just the way they are written.How long does it take to learn Swahili? ›
|Language||Time needed to reach fluency|
|Indonesian||900 hours or 36 weeks|
|Malaysian||900 hours or 36 weeks|
|Swahili||900 hours or 36 weeks|
|Haitian Creole||900 hours or 36 weeks|
Which African language is most widely spoken in Africa? Swahili is the most widely spoken African language with 50 million people on the continent speaking it.How many Americans speak Swahili? ›
Around 90,000 people speak Swahili at home in the United States.Is Swahili spoken in the United States? ›
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- Frisian. ...
- Dutch. ...
- Norwegian. ...
- Spanish. ...
- Portuguese. ...
- Italian. ...
- French. ...
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|Birri language||Critically endangered||bvq|
|Geme language||Critically endangered||geq|
|Ngombe language||Definitely endangered||nmj|
|Ukhwejo language||Severely endangered||ukh|
Uganda. Uganda comes at number one in the list of African countries where people speak the best English. This landlocked country has a diverse landscape and a population of 45 million, out of which approximately 29 million speak the English language.What is a Swahili person called? ›
1 • INTRODUCTION. For at least a thousand years, Swahili people, who call themselves Waswahili, have occupied a narrow strip of coastal land extending from the north coast of Kenya to Dar es Salaam (the capital of Tanzania). They also occupy several nearby Indian Ocean islands, including Zanzibar, Lamu, and Pate.
Nigeria is home to Africa's largest Muslim population.What animals are on the Swahili Coast? ›
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Swahili cuisine is rich in spices and has African, Indian and Middle Eastern influences. Some common food items in everyday lives of the Swahilis are coconut rice, meat stew, coconut curries or beans, samosas, seafood, fresh tropical fruits, milk teas and sweets such as halwa (sweetened Arabic dessert).
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The world's most popular way to learn Swahili online
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- Arabic. Number of native speakers: 150 million in Africa, 280 million worldwide. ...
- English. Number of speakers in Africa: 6.5 million native speakers, 130 million speakers total. ...
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If your destination is Zimbabwe or South Africa, take into account that Zulu is the most widely spoken and understood language. If you're traveling to East Africa, familiarize yourself with Swahili, a language that's a blend of Arabic and Bantu.
There are basically five ways to say hello in Swahili:
– nzuri (nZOOree) (fine) U hali gani? (oo HAlee GAnee) (how are you) – njema (fine) Shikamoo (a young person to an elder) – marahaba. For casual interactions: mambo?
The 1994 Disney movie popularised the Swahili phrase 'hakuna matata', which you'll know from the song means no worries, or more literally 'without trouble'.What is your name in Swahili? ›
Basic Swahili Phrases for Travelers
What is your name?: jina lako nani? Where are you from?: unatoka wapi?
Translation: Good bye! Response: Kwa heri! or Baadaye! Translation: Goodbye! or Later!How do you respond to Jambo? ›
The response is: Njema. – I am fine. If more than one person is being greeted, the same greeting and response would apply. The word Mambo is the plural of Jambo, which means “things, matters, and affairs.” This is a recent form of greeting used mostly by young people.What does Mambo mean in Kenya? ›
"Mambo!" is becoming more and more popular as a greeting, too. Mostly used by children or amogst young people of same age, it still means "Issues!" The expected response to that is "Poa!" which actually means "Cool!" but in this case is used as a reciprocal greeting.What does Mufasa mean in Swahili? ›
Simba means lion, Nala means gift, and Mufasa means king. And our teachers of the meaning of hakuna matada need a mention here too: Timon means respect, while Pumbaa means slow-witted. In fact, all of the names in The Lion King have origins in Swahili; everyone from Rafiki (friend) to Zazu (movement)!What does Nala mean in Swahili? ›
Popularity:1530. Origin:Swahili. Meaning:successful. Nala is a feminine name originating from many African cultures. In Swahili, this name means “queen,” “lion,” and “successful”.What does Pumbaa mean in Swahili? ›
Poor Pumba gets the short end of the stick, his name in Swahili translates to “slow-witted” or “stupid” and while he isn't exactly the brightest bulb he is a loyal friend who packs a powerful punch.How do you respond to thank you in Swahili? ›
If you need to respond, simply say “Asante.” Also, if someone tells you “Asante” for some good you have done, you can equally say “Karibu.” When addressing the elderly, “Karibu sana” is more appropriate.
True to the words, #kenya is an a. 'Mambo poa' is a sweet #swahili expression that. means all is well.