Swahili – A Growing Language

Written by Isabel Harmse

Once just an obscure island dialect of an African Bantu tongue, Swahili – also known by its native name Kiswahili – has evolved into Africa’s most internationally recognized language. In terms of speakers, it is peer to the dozen or so languages of the world that boast close to 100 million users (www.ohioswallow.com). It is the native language of the Swahili people, who are found primarily along the East African coast in Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique.

Swahili is widely used as a lingua franca (language used as a means of communication between populations speaking vernaculars that are not mutually intelligible) in: (1) Tanzania, where it is the language of administration and primary education; (2) Kenya, where it is, after English, the main language for these purposes; (3) Congo (Kinshasa), where a form of Swahili is one of the four languages of administration, the main language for this purpose being French; and (4) Uganda, where the main language is again English (www.britannica.com).

South Africa has become the first southern African country to offer Kiswahili as an optional subject in schools, raising hopes for the growth of the language considered the lingua franca of East Africa. It is the first African language from outside southern Africa to be offered in schools. Besides promoting African indigenous languages, South Africa also hopes that the introduction of Kiswahili will be promoting cohesion and help to address xenophobia (www.theeastafrican.co.ke). 


Although linguistically categorised as a Bantu language, Swahili has borrowed a number of words from foreign languages, particularly Arabic, but also words from Portuguese, English and German. Around forty percent of Swahili vocabulary consists of Arabic loanwords.

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