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Using Swahili

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Canton, Ohio
Level Contributor
47 posts
20 reviews
Using Swahili

We will be in Nairobi for about a month in June, mostly doing service work, including in the Kibera slum.

My question is - how important is it for us to pick up Swahili before our trip? We'll be working w/locals A LOT, so I'm wondering if we really need to have a (at least) a basic working vocabulary.

Your thoughts?

Asante sana.

Destination Expert
for Mombasa, Diani Beach, Kenya
Level Contributor
6,889 posts
21 reviews
1. Re: Using Swahili

I think its important out of curtesy to make an effort to learn the language of the country you are visiting even if its just simple basics. The trouble is we (as in English speakers) tend to be lazy as a lot of Kenyans in the big cities and coast areas speak English.

Pimsleur do a very good course of Kiswahili (this being the language of the swahili people). On top of kiswahili you will find people also speak their own tribes language.

Canton, Ohio
Level Contributor
47 posts
20 reviews
2. Re: Using Swahili

Thank you for your response, but I suppose my question is - how much time should I be investing in this? As said, we're going to be doing service work (including in the slums), so it's not like we'll be in the business area where most of the folks naturally speak English, due to trade.

We do already know the very basics, and have even picked up a couple pocket guides and the Rosetta Stone. Frankly, though, the Rosetta Stone method is NOT working very well (pictures aren't always clear when it comes to verbs and its teaching a lot of words that I'm sure I'll never use). As far as the travel guides go - let's just my ADD kicks in before I can go too far with them...lol.

That all said - I'm just wondering if its worth so much effort, or if just about everyone is going to speak enough English to get by w/o me picking up a great deal more Swahili.

Destination Expert
for Mombasa, Diani Beach, Kenya
Level Contributor
6,889 posts
21 reviews
3. Re: Using Swahili

I'm nosey and like to know what's being said! The number of times in the middle of a conversation in English the locals lapse into Kiswahili and I hear "mzungu" so I know that I'm being discussed. I have CDs which I play all the time in the car. Being long in the tooth, it doesn't come easy but I can now understand a little. If you are working alongside trusted people who can translate exactly what's being said then don't worry too much. I don't think you can become fluent using CDs etc. Learn what you can.

Chicago, Illinois
Level Contributor
278 posts
8 reviews
4. Re: Using Swahili

While English is a co-official language of Kenya, you should have a working vocabulary and Swahili is super-easy to learn (thank goodness). That said, I find that in most places in Nairobi, the degree to its usefulness can vary. In a lot of areas of Nairobi, Swahili is not spoken as much as their ethnic tongues and it not always easily understood. I attended a great school in Arusha where fluency was attained in about 6 weeks of classroom study (just so you can guage the ease of the language). There are stark differences between the usage of swahili in Mombasa and Nairobi. Also, as a sidenote, it's common for Kenyans to have a tough time understanding the American accent.

Level Contributor
14,081 posts
5. Re: Using Swahili

For me languages go in one ear/out the other. My high school French is long gone, but I remember enough phases to be respectful and courteous and can actually read a menu. It's similar with other languages/phases I've learned for other destinations - hello, good morning/afternoon/evening, please, thank you, excuse me, you're welcome, where's the toilet - even with Swahili I have to refresh myself before each visit.

If you already have the basic down and it doesn't take much time to add a few other expressions, you'll be fine. It's likely you'll have someone who can translate if necessary. And, once your ear becomes familiar with the sounds and words, be able to pick-up more hearing it daily; the kids will do even better.

And, if someone is talking about you, you've made an impression one way or another!

Nairobi, Kenya
Level Contributor
3,755 posts
3 reviews
6. Re: Using Swahili

I wouldn't go overboard in learning KiSwahili for your trip. As other posters have stated, a basic understanding is more than sufficient and you will undoubtedly pick it up quite quickly when you are here, particularly over the course of a month.

The other thing to bear in mind is that, with over 40 tribes here in Kenya, not only is KiSwahili spoken but so are dozens of other dialects, all differing. Many Nairobians barely even use Swahili but prefer Sheng, which is a kind of slang. So rather than "jambo", you may hear dozens of other kinds of greeting including "salama sana", "mambo", "niaje" etc etc. It's very difficult to keep up with them all!

Just listen to the locals you are with and follow their lead. When you speak English with them, enunciate clearly and fairly slowly - accented English is often quite difficult for locals to understand, as are colloquialisms other English-speaking nationalities take for granted. Keep it as simple as possible!

And karibuni!


new york city
3 posts
7. Re: Using Swahili

i think it is important to know the basics---

especially polite and courteous phrases....excuse me,

i am sorry, please, thank you, this was a good meal, etc....

the swahili language has many differences depending

where you are.....i learned mostly in tanzania,

and kenyan friends often giggle at my usage, but

everyone enjoys and appreciates the fact that i am

always trying to communicate better.

there are a number of phrase books around....you

can find them in the travel section in your bookstore

...some of them are quite helpful...

endo na baraka...


Bungoma, Kenya
Destination Expert
for Kenya
Level Contributor
2,616 posts
2 reviews
8. Re: Using Swahili

There is a lot of wise advice here. Can I add a few more observations?

The most important thing is to understand greetings and to be able to greet the people you meet in the way they like. You may not learn that till you get there.

Here in Western Kenya, you shake hands as well as verbal greetings!! However you can't shake every person in a crowd!!

Education is in English (except language lessons, of course), so anyone who has been to school knows some English. What is more - they like you to know they can speak English! Small kids will greet "How are you" (the reply is "fine" or "I am fine, thank you, how are you?").

Yes, you will need a basic working vocabulary, but struggling with "correct" Kiswahili might not be a good use of your time.

When you talk in English, speak slowly and clearly. Many Kenyans have learnt English with a Kenyan accent, so find an American one hard to hear.

I hope this helps a little.

Dartford, United...
Level Contributor
965 posts
27 reviews
9. Re: Using Swahili

And my two cents worth! I've been trying to learn the language seriously for over 2 years now and still am struggling with verb conjugations (there seems to be so many). My friends out there think I'm brilliant at it but I think they're just being very kind to me! I'm not stupid, I've done Spanish, French and Greek before so I'm used to learning different languages but Kiswahili sometimes baffles me.

I agree with everyone else, learn the basics as people will appreciate your effort but nothing beats being out there and picking up the language along the way. This is by far the best way and I've learnt more like that than from any other study method.

Bahati nzuri!!

Level Contributor
603 posts
10. Re: Using Swahili

Yes, learn what you can before you go but as has been said above many languages are spoken in Kenya. In Nairobi you will more likely hear Gikuyu than Swahili; then again Kibera has a sizable Luo and Sudanese community so while you are in Kibera you may well hear more Jaluo or Kinubi.