Africa ought to embrace Swahili

13Feb 2019
The Guardian
Africa ought to embrace Swahili

Africa’s most  internationally recognised language  Swahili will soon be taught in South African classrooms.

Swahili is a Bantu language spoken in Tanzania, Burundi, Congo (Kinshasa) Kenya, Mayotte, Mozambique, Oman, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Uganda, UAE and the USA. Around 5 million people speak Swahili as a native language, and a further 135 million speak is as a second language.

Starting in 2020, schools will teach Kiswahili as an optional language, making it the first African language outside South Africa to be offered in class. South African  Education minister Angie Motshekga said the move was meant to promote unity and “social cohesion with fellow Africans.” Anti-immigrant sentiments have brewed in South Africa in the past decade, leading to sporadic attacks on the homes and businesses of communities including Malawians, Somalis, and Nigerians.

The push to embrace the Swahili language comes as African countries look into plans to reform and critically assess their education systems. There’s also the recognition that the continent needs a new strategy for mother-tongue based education from primary through to tertiary level education, and to cast aside dependence on foreign languages. This realization also arrives as African languages continue to die as governments adopt official languages while discouraging local ones, in hopes of forging a harmonized national identity.

In a continent with more than 2,000 distinct languages, the role and importance of indigenous African languages in post-colonial modern societies has also proved to be a contentious issue. Over the last few decades, the place of African languages has suffered negative consequences due to colonization, globalization, and the entrenchment of official languages like English and French. African languages have often been labeled as a hindrance to learning, and have suffered delegitimisation at social, economic, and political spheres.




Swahili, the language spoken by all Tanzanians, is the most widely understood language in Africa after Arabic. Swahili has over 50 million speakers and is spoken not only in Tanzania. Swahili has only 2 million native speakers, so the first language of most Tanzanians is still that of their ethnic group. However, the number of first language speakers of Swahili is increasing since Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president, implemented a policy after independence making Swahili the language of instruction in all Tanzanian primary schools in order to help unify the country.

Tanzania is a multilingual country. There are many languages spoken in the country, but no one language is spoken natively by a majority or a large plurality of the population. The Bantu Swahili language and English, the latter of which was inherited from colonial rule,  are widely spoken as lingua francas. They serve as the two official working languages. There are more speakers of Swahili than of English in Tanzania


According to Ethnologue, there are a total of 126 languages spoken in Tanzania. Two are institutional, 18 are developing, 58 are vigorous, 40 are endangered, and 8 are dying. There are also three languages that recently became extinct.

Most languages spoken locally belong to two broad language families: Niger-Congo (Bantu branch) and Nilo-Saharan (Nilotic branch), spoken by the country's Bantu and Nilotic populations, respectively. Additionally, the Hadza and Sandawe hunter-gatherers speak languages with click consonants, which have tentatively been classified within the Khoisan phylum (although Hadza may be a language isolate). The Cushitic and Semitic ethnic minorities speak languages belonging to the separate Afro-Asiatic family, with the Hindustani and British residents speaking languages from the Indo-European family.

Tanzania's various ethnic groups typically speak their mother tongues within their own communities. The two official languages, English and Swahili, are used in varying degrees of fluency for communication with other populations. According to the official national linguistic policy announced in 1984, Swahili is the language of the social and political sphere as well as primary and adult education, whereas English is the language of secondary education, universities, technology, and higher courts. The government announced in 2015 that it would discontinue the use of English as a language of education as part of an overhaul of the Tanzanian schools system.

Additionally, several Tanzanian sign languages are used.