How To Learn Swahili: Beginner Guide (+ Best Resources)

  • Yodet Addisalem
    Written byYodet Addisalem
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How To Learn Swahili: Beginner Guide (+ Best Resources)

Hujambo - hello!

And karibu, or welcome, to the fascinating and beautiful language of Swahili.

For many people, learning a second language seems like a daunting endeavor, from the grammar and syntax of another dialect to choosing which of the many languages you want to dive into.

However, did you know that many learners find Swahili a relatively easy language to learn?

And with many native speakers and students of Swahili around not only the East African coast and sub-Saharan Africa, but also the world, learning to speak Swahili is a rewarding and rich experience for anyone.

The national language of the countries within the East African Community (EAC), Swahili is known as the easiest African language for English speakers to master. And once you get past the complexity of its grammatical structure, the easy pronunciation and vocabulary will allow you to begin speaking and understanding Swahili words in no time.

Read on for a full exploration of the history behind the Swahili language, its culture, and native Swahili speakers, as well as the basics of Swahili words and resources for further study.

With that in mind, tunaweza kuanza--- we can start!

  1. Brief history of the Swahili language
    • Origins of Swahili
      • Arabic influence
      • Other influences
    • Swahili language and culture
    • Swahili dialects
  2. Swahili structure
    • Grammar
      • Noun classes
      • Noun agreement
    • Sounds of Swahili
      • Consonants and vowels
    • Written Swahili
  3. Swahili resources
    • Dictionaries and grammars
    • Swahili schools
    • Online Swahili teachers
    • TV shows and media
    • Online Swahili lessons
    • Phrasebooks
    • Podcasts for learning Swahili
    • Pronunciation guides
    • Mobile apps
    • Swahili Textbooks
    • YouTube channels
  4. Summary

Brief history of the Swahili language

Learn Swahili

Swahili is a widely spoken language today, with over 200 million speakers worldwide.

It is an official language in over a dozen countries of East Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Somalia, with many others on the list.

But to fully understand the final product of the Swahili language, it’s important to first understand where it all started.

So, let’s delve into the history of Swahili and some of the most important cultural elements of this fascinating language.

The origins of Swahili

Also known as “Kiswahili”, the native name for the language, Swahili is a Bantu language spoken along the East African coast.

As such, it is referred to as the lingua franca of the region, or a language adopted between different groups of native speakers with contrasting dialects.

But Swahili’s origins are actually much deeper, and even include Arabic influences, as well as vocabulary from other local language groups, such as Mijikenda, Pokomo, and Taita dialects in East Africa.

In fact, the word Swahili itself is derived from an Arabic term - sawāhilī, or “of the coast”.

Arabic influences on Swahili

Along with its name, Swahili continues to contain many terms that are directly created from an Arabic word or phrase.

For instance, you might encounter the greeting salam aleikum when speaking in Swahili, something that is directly from Arabic as a standard Islamic salutation.

Or, you might hear salama as a reply to someone questioning how they are doing, borrowed from the Arabic response “salaam”.

Yet the roots of the Swahili language extend further.

Historians note that this dialect can be dated back to Arab traders’ initial contact with the original Swahili people in the lands that now stretch from Somalia to Mozambique, and westward to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Other influences

The Greeks also wrote about the East coast of Africa, and in the 2nd Century AD a naval papyrus called Periplus of Erythrean Sea documented Swahili peoples and possible trade there.

These contacts, along with others in the ancient world, are likely where Swahili words had the opportunity to morph and adopt other linguistic traditions into the language itself.

And as the native speakers continued to trade and move around the African continent, the Swahili language was able to spread further.

There is evidence of several city-states under various rule dotting the East coast of Africa over the centuries, as well as medieval sultanates that influenced Swahili and Bantu cultural traditions.

Swahili language culture

Thanks to a strong Arabic and Muslim heritage that emerged particularly during the Kilwa Sultanate, founded in 957 AD by a Persian prince by the name of Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, Swahili traditions bear the signs of its strong cultural influence to this day.

For example, the arts of Swahili culture are a unique mix of African descent and Arabic innovation.

The art style relies on primarily geometric designs, without many representations of living persons used in reliefs.

Additionally, music within Swahili culture tends to have Arab and Indian-influenced melodies, and the most typical genre that you will run into in terms of traditional music is called Taarab.

This style of music has strong ties throughout North Africa, India, and the Middle East, bringing the continents even closer together in cultural similarities.

However, it is important to note that Swahili culture and the people who live within it are very much their own group, not to be confused with or written off as a simple Middle Eastern subset.

Swahili dialects

The standard Swahili language was able to adapt even further as it spread across the South and East countries of the African continent, and although it is known as a lingua franca, you can still find several different dialects in use today.

These include the three primary local Swahili variations: kiAmu, spoken along the East Coast and the island of Lamu; kiMvita, found in the Mombasa area of Kenya; and kiUnguja, in Zanzibar and central Tanzania.

The structure of Swahili

Now that we understand the basic backstory of the Swahili language, let’s take some time to discuss some of the main points of Swahili grammar and other syntactical elements.

Keep in mind that this is a very broad overview, as the complexities of Swahili would take more room to explore, but a small taste of such intriguing linguistics is always a good idea!

Basic Swahili grammar

For those who first encounter it, Swahili grammar can seem daunting.

However, there are only a few aspects that you need to keep in mind while learning Swahili words, including classes, agreement, and inflection.

Let’s take a brief sojourn through the basics of Swahili word structure that students will encounter when learning to speak Swahili.

Swahili nouns classes

In general, nouns are grouped into several grammatical classes, depending on the prefix that accompanies the word, and the meaning that attaches to it.

For example, a noun in the first class is formed with the prefix m- before a consonant and mw- before a vowel.

This prefix reveals the noun to refer to a single human, animal, or another animate object. So, the word mtu means a “person”, singular.

A noun using the second class prefix of wa- refers to humans, animals, or animate objects in the plural.

Thus, watu means “people”, plural.

Other classes denote plants and inanimate objects in both the singular and plural, abstract nouns, and even locatives.

Swahili noun agreement

Moving on from the classes of nouns, there are several other methods of creating meaning when crafting a Swahili sentence.

For example, there is a further process of attaching other types of words to any given noun known as agreement, which involves matching the meaning and style of a noun to the verb or adjective that will alter it within a sentence.

Simply put, when forming sentences in Swahili, you need to make sure that the inflection of a noun is matched by the subject, object, verb, and any other modifiers that are required.

And while this can sound very confusing and daunting, it becomes quite an easy process once you get the hang of it!

Other parts of the Swahili language include determiners, ornative construction, and pronouns that do not ascribe to formal alterations based on gender. Rather, Swahili pronouns change according to animate or inanimate referral.

And these are just some of the interesting complexities of Swahili grammar and syntax!

The sounds of Swahili

With melodic tones and a rolling vocabulary, the sound of spoken Swahili is a wonderful experience for anyone listening.

This is, in part, due to the vowel and consonant phonemes that create the very fabric of the language itself.

Consonants and vowels

Consonants are a tricky part of pronouncing Swahili words right. And it’s not necessarily the consonant sound itself, as most of them are equated to English consonants--- instead, it’s how you say it, or the Swahili phonemic system that alters the consonant within a word.

Pronunciation of consonants can be aspirated, nasal, trilled, truncated, or even voiceless, depending on the word and the surrounding grammar.

In contrast, only five different phonemes make up the vowels of Swahili, and though they can range in pronunciation depending on the word, each is carried out as long vowels regardless of stressed or unstressed grammar.

These sounds include those of /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/, similar to what English speakers are used to.

Written Swahili

Now, Swahili is written out in the Latin script, just like English and many of the Romance Languages of Europe.

This makes it much easier for people to pick up, without the added stress of learning a new alphabet as well as a new language!

But originally, old Swahili was written using Arabic script, where few adaptations were made to accommodate the new language, leading to necessitated conflations of sound.

This includes /e/, /i/, /o/, or, for other sounds specific to Swahili, the nearest sound in the Arabic script was used instead.

This is only found in old documents or through researching ancient texts these days, however, leaving written Swahili in Latin script to look just like any other Western language’s alphabet!

Resources for Swahili beginners

Now that you have a firm grasp on the origins and history behind the Swahili language, as well as the basics of Swahili grammar and the relationships between Swahili words, you might be even more excited to begin your linguistic journey, and eager to learn about resources available to you.

To get you started and well on your way to speaking Swahili, here are some of the best resources for easy learning and retention of Swahili language skills!

Dictionaries and grammars

A great place to start getting familiar with learning Swahili can be the individual words, grammar systems, and sentence structure of the language.

To do so, grabbing a good dictionary or grammatical guide is absolutely essential for a beginner to learn Swahili.

To start, the Essential Swahili Dictionary: A Teach Yourself Guide by D. V. Perrott is a great initial step into vocabulary and grammar understanding for nearly every Swahili word.

Follow this up with the comprehensive bilingual dictionary Swahili/English - English/Swahili Dictionary (Hippocrene Practical Dictionary) by Nicholas Awde, which can help you get a better grasp of Swahili when juxtaposed with the English language.

With the Modern Swahili Grammar Illustrated Edition by M. A. Mohammed, you can practice your language skills with the aid of handy visuals and guides to proper Swahili pronunciation.

Lastly, there is the 2nd Edition Swahili Learners’ Reference Grammar by Katrina Daly Thompson as part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s National African Language Resource Center.

It’s a mouthful, but given the book’s professional and academic affiliations, it is one of the best comprehensive references for complete beginners to the language.

Brick and mortar Swahili schools

For anyone who is interested in traveling to a different location to learn a language, local schools that teach Swahili and immerse you in the entire culture and language might be the best option for you. The following are some of the top-rated language schools to learn Swahili.

Hosted by Pathway Impact, this is a great opportunity to learn Swahili in Uganda along with native speakers throughout the program.

Alternatively, the AnatolioEd Center offers a Swahili Language Course in Kenya, with focuses on reading, writing, speaking, listening, and general Swahili grammar.

Check out the Language Immersion Program in Africa, run by Cross Continental, in order to fully discover Swahili culture, language, and the intricacies of all aspects therein. ELCT Language and Orientation School also offers a full experience to allow you to learn Swahili within East Africa.

Or, if you are interested in learning the Swahili language while giving back to the local community, why not apply to the International Volunteer Travel’s Tanzania Swahili Language Program.

You have access to beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels of the language--- Tanzanian Swahili, in particular--- as well as events and interactive activities.

Swahili language tutors

Tutors are a great way to have a personalized, one-to-one learning plan tailored to your needs and the level of experience you already have with Swahili.

So, if you want to access a tutor for learning Swahili at home with the same quality as a language school, try the many teachers available on italki who specialize in speaking Swahili!

Another decent option after you try italki is Verbling, which offers a plethora of teachers and lessons for you to learn Swahili words and proper pronunciation rules easily and naturally.

If you still cannot find a good fit for a native speaker tutor on the previous sites, give Amazing Talker a try--- there are a variety of Swahili teachers and prices available on this platform for learners of every level, from beginners to those wanting to brush up on meaningful sentences.

Swahili TV shows and media

Between movies, TV, and music, media is a great way to relax.

But it’s also a fantastic method for easily absorbing a widely spoken language like Swahili.

Many people enjoy reality TV shows, including The Real Housewives of Kwangware. This version is filmed primarily in Swahili, and also includes many instances of idiomatic language that are great for learners who want to employ more conversational Swahili skills.

Plan B (2019) is filmed mostly in English but still contains Swahili dialogue, so it’s great for beginners to ease into learning the language with media resources!

And for movies in Swahili with either English narration or subtitles, try the drama film Fatuma (2018), the romantic comedy Kiumeni (2017), or the biographical drama Something Necessary (2013).

For anyone who likes listening to music in their target language to pick up some new vocabulary, there are plenty of songs in Swahili that you can add to your daily playlists.

Listen to some of the following tracks to supplement your Swahili words!

Online Swahili lessons

With the plethora of online learning courses available to everyone today, all you need is a computer and a decent internet connection to access some great educational content.

And learning with online Swahili courses is no different.

First up, Pimsleur Swahili is unbeatable (tried and tested method that’s been around for ages).

Glossika’s Learn Swahili language course is a great way to immerse yourself in Swahili too, and learn the speech patterns and meanings without the trouble of translating individual Swahili vocabulary words to understand.

I also recommend Cudoo, which offers a decent foundational Swahili course.

Another one to try out is City Lit’s online courses in Swahili, held as a real lecture online, with classes available during the day or in the evening. Alternatively, Learn Swahili Now offers the fundamentals of language learning and the ability to practice Swahili for a goal of fluency.

Swahili phrasebooks

Phrasebooks are typically used as a crash course for heading to a different country and learning bits of the language quickly, but they can also be an invaluable tool for people wanting to learn Swahili comprehensively.

Use phrasebooks to learn vocabulary easily, connect this new language with English words, or brush up on memorable sentences.

There’s Learn Swahili: For Beginners and Travellers by G. O. Oyoo which is a great starting point for many people who are studying Swahili, with many entries and a variety of additional information included.

The Lonely Planet Swahili Phrasebook by Martin Benjamin, Charles Mironko, and Anne Geoghegan is a classic for many travelers and students alike. Lonely Planet remains one of the top informational publications today, so this comprehensive phrasebook is a great resource to rely on.

Or, for smartphone users, you can bring your language learning with you via the Swahili Phrasebook app and reference your grammar anywhere in the world!

Podcasts for learning Swahili

For many people who want to learn Swahili as a second language and other learners, popping an audio lesson on is an easy way to fast track your retention of Swahili words and phrases.

Try these sources to speak Swahili faster than ever!

Africa & Beyond is a great option that comes in English and Swahili, along with a Kirundi translation for anyone also interested in the official language of Burundi, and another member of the Bantu language family.

Swahili words and the history of East Africa are blended wonderfully in the Swahili with Mariana podcast, while BONGO Classy introduces Swahili language skills via informational content such as the news, Southeast Africa tourism, and cultural facts.

Or, turn on the Kenyan Plug Pod for plenty of host story drama and a fun way to learn Swahili words while also getting an inside look at some particularly intriguing situations.

Pronunciation guides

Like most other languages, Swahili is one where pronunciation rules matter.

And while it can be difficult to pick up proper pronunciation from textual or static learning resources, some very handy pronunciation guides can aid you in learning Swahili.

To begin, check out Forvo’s Swahili pronunciation dictionary to learn the right speech patterns and audible structures for Swahili vocabulary.

Plus, you can listen to native speaker audio clips uploaded to the website, from Kenyan Swahili to Tanzanian Swahili.

The 200 Word Project by Boston University is another great resource for an English speaker learning to start learning Swahili pronunciation.

All entries are tailored for easy language retention and high-quality Swahili to English proficiency.

Smartphone apps for Swahili

With the tiny computer in your pocket, learning Swahili language skills on the go has never been easier.

Here are some users’ favorite picks when it comes to smartphone apps that help you learn Swahili and pursue fluency in this local language.

The Swahili lessons at Ling are a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to learn Swahili, right in your pocket.

Alternatively, Duolingo remains a popular app among many language learners that offers free Swahili lessons that you can pursue in as little as 5 minutes per day.

Another great option is Memrise’s Swahili courses, providing not only grammar lessons, but also Swahili word tests, information about Swahili culture, and information about Southeast Africa as a whole.

Babel is another very popular smartphone app for language skills, including free Swahili lessons among many other languages. However, the interactive nature of this application makes it one of the best for actually retaining the Swahili lessons that you get!

Textbooks and workbooks

Sometimes, you need to access a good textbook to learn Swahili or other languages, so the following titles are some of the best options for any linguistic student to learn new words in East Africa’s mother tongue!

For anyone learning to speak Swahili, Colloquial Swahili: The Complete Course for Beginners by Lutz Marten and Donovan Lee McGrath is a go-to for conversational Swahili lessons and a linguistic look into Swahili culture.

Another great pick is Complete Swahili: A Teach Yourself Guide (TY Language Guides) by Joan Russell.

With both reading material and audio clips, you can supplement learning to speak Swahili with all-around understanding and practice!

For a full experience of the Swahili language, try Kiswahili Swahili: A Foundation for Speaking, Reading, and Writing by Thomas J. Hinnebusch, Sarah M. Mirza, and Adelheid U. Stein. This is available for Kindle users and in paperback.

Or, opt for Pimsleur Swahili Conversational Course - Level One, Lessons 1-16.

This complete course walks students through how to speak and understand Swahili through comprehensive lessons and word lists on every aspect of the language at the level of native Swahili speakers.

Finally, try Living Language’s Swahili: A Complete Course For Beginners, which comes with both a book and spoken-word audio for a full Swahili learning experience for this phonetic language.

YouTube channels

YouTube is one of the best places for free Swahili lessons and ways to learn the original language with native speaker audio and video.

Check out the Five College Center For World Language channel and its playlist of Swahili grammar videos, with 50 episodes in total.

The Swahili 101 channel features a host of lessons from colors to numbers, body parts to the calendar.

To learn Swahili on a fully interactive YouTube channel, subscribe to Learn Swahili with SwahiliPod101.

From the basics of Swahili grammar to dialogue tracks, this is a great resource for free Swahili lessons that anyone can enjoy and benefit from.

Or, for those learning the language with their children, Swahili AniBooks by BookBox is well-suited to beginners, and a great way to access easy Swahili language skills with English subtitles.

Summary: How to learn Swahili

Learning to speak Swahili is one of the most rewarding linguistic adventures that you can embark on, and also one of the most fun.

Whether this is your first foray into learning another language, or you are adding another level of knowledge to your already polyglot life, I hope these resources will come in handy.

Na bahati nzuri - good luck!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
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