Swahili At A Glance

  • Swahili is the most widely spoken African language in the world
  • At least 100 million speakers—probably more
  • An official language of Kenya and Tanzania; widely spoken in the Comoros Islands, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda

If you’ve seen the movie, “The Lion King,” you already know some Swahili: the song, “Hakuna Matata” (“no worries”) is recognized worldwide. Musicians such as Michael Jackson have used Swahili in their compositions, and it’s no wonder—it’s the easiest African language to learn. That’s because Swahili uses a Latin alphabet and, like English (and unlike most sub-Saharan languages), it doesn’t use tones to convey information.

Related to regional Bantu languages, Swahili emerged in the second century, used by fishermen of Africa’s northeastern coast. The language of Swahili has its own name: “Kiswahili,” and one-third of its vocabulary comes from Arabic. But it also has Persian, Portuguese, German, French, and English influences: “redio” is derived from “radio,” “muziki” from “music,” and “televisheni” from “television.”

One of the official languages of the African Union, Swahili is evolving into the common language, or lingua franca, of eastern and central Africa. Because so many people around the world use Swahili as their second or third language, speakers are advised to never speak badly of anyone—you never know when a Swahili speaker may overhear you. Hakuna matata!


Of the 2,000+ languages spoken in Africa, Swahili is one of the few known as “power languages,” likely to become the preferred language for most African nations. It’s amazingly popular in the U.S., too, where classes are offered at almost 100 institutions and universities, including Yale, Stanford, and Princeton. It may be the language most widely used on the radio: Swahili programs are broadcast on Voice of America, BBC, and Deutsche Welle in Japan, Germany, China, and many other countries.

From researchers at nonprofits based in Africa to travelers seeking adventure, Swahili can be a useful tool. And because it’s a required subject in Ugandan primary schools and compulsory in Kenyan schools, the next generation of leaders in these countries will speak Swahili. Kenya is the largest economy in eastern and central Africa, investments in its IT infrastructure and mobile solutions businesses are growing, and Swahili is the language associated with technology and telecommunications. So it’s no surprise that Microsoft chose Swahili as the first African language to be supported by its Web text translation service.

Swahili also has a role in Bongo Flava, a style of Tanzanian hip-hop synonymous with a pop culture movement born in the 1980s. Bongo Flava infuses hip-hop with reggae, American rap, R&B, fast rhythms, and Swahili rhymes. The movement originated as a way for musicians to talk about taboo subjects, such as sexuality. Today, young people use Bongo Flava and the language of music to promote dialogue about politics, poverty, corruption, money, and love.

From business to adventure to music and dance, the ways in which the Swahili language is used today are as broad and diverse as its roots.


What can you do with Swahili?