Picha. Muziki. Redio. Sound familiar? These words for picture, music, and radio are Swahili words borrowed from English. With roots in the Bantu language, there is a surprising amount of words borrowed from other languages, including Arabic and Portuguese. If you’ve seen The Lion King, then you’ve already heard a few Swahili words (asante sana, squash banana!). Watching cartoons can only get you so far, but...hakuna matata. Swahili language programs abroad will fully immerse you in the language, and you definitely won’t regret joining the 140 million people who joke, speak, and sing in Swahili!
Swahili, or KiSwahili, is the most common language in the African Great Lakes region, including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. To get as much exposure to the language as possible, head to more rural areas. The farther you are from the cities, the less tempted you’ll be to speak English.
Kenya. Culturally and geographically, this is a country of stark contrasts, hosting over 45 tribes and 28 million people speaking dozens of languages. Swahili is an official language in Kenya, so almost anyone you talk to will help you practice. There will be plenty to do during your down time, too. Take a swim in Africa’s largest lake, Lake Victoria, or hike up Mount Kenya, Africa’s second tallest mountain. Go on a safari (Swahili for “journey”) in one of Kenya’s 19 national parks and reserves boasting lions, zebras, and pygmy hippos. Kenya gains most of its income from tourism and coffee production, so kick back and practice your Swahili with a cup of locally grown kahawa.
Tanzania. Throughout Tanzania, Swahili is quickly replacing local dialects and becoming the main language. If you plan to live, work, or travel in Africa, Tanzania is one of the easier places to pick up Swahili. Hearing English, which happens to be the other official language of the country, can be a relief, and rest assured, you’ll be understood when you’re not sure how to say things like “where is the bathroom?” in Swahili. Outside of class time, you can hike Mount Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped peaks, snap photos of wild cheetahs, or take a plunge in the Indian Ocean.
Uganda. Both English and Swahili are commonly spoken in Uganda. Other than having blatantly perpetuated anti-LGBT policies, Uganda remains one of the safest destinations in Africa. It’s also one of the most beautiful and packs a punch for its size. The Rwenzori mountains run through Uganda and house glaciers that feed into the Nile River. Yes, the world’s longest river runs north; Uganda believe it. Smaller cities like Kabale are great places to practice Swahili during the week, while the weekend can be saved for searching for one of the few hundred mountain gorillas left in the wild!
Swahili Language Programs
There are several different Swahili language programs to choose from, but each one will ensure you are safe and happy for the duration of your time abroad. Swahili language programs vary from college credit courses to volunteer opportunities with a language component, and everything in between.
College Courses. Many students choose to earn college credits by taking Swahili language courses abroad, which include the usual course hours, as well as opportunities to participate in volunteer projects and smaller group language instruction in some cases. Outside of class, you’ll get to practice your new language skills as you navigate markets, order food, and interact with homestay families. Swahili language courses tend to focus on cultural and political studies, both of the past and present, relating events to the evolution and spread of the language. Like any language program abroad, one of the keys to successfully completing university-level Swahili courses abroad will be integrating into day-to-day life and constantly practicing your new Swahili vocab.
Volunteer Programs with Language Courses. Immerse yourself in East African culture while helping others through volunteer language projects. Take personally-tailored classes with local language teachers while living with a host family. Typically, there is a set of hours to complete, followed by a volunteer project to implement what you’ve learned. You’ll be matched with organizations that dedicate themselves to HIV-AIDS prevention, life skills, or teaching locals how to make handicrafts. The longer you stay in countries like Tanzania and The Republic of Congo, the more you’ll learn and give back to your community.
Traditional Language Learning. Taking intensive language courses or attending Swahili language schools are other popular options available abroad. The communicative approach to learning is an especially popular method of learning by speaking (instead of copying down words), and is a convenient way to pick up the language in a classroom setting. Look up Swahili language schools that offer small class sizes to receive the most personalized attention. In most Swahili language schools, class sizes range from one-on-one up to 10 students per class, however.
Tips for Gaining Fluency in Swahili
Proverb in Swahili: Habit is a skin. The more you practice a language, the more you’ll learn and retain. But, this doesn’t mean that you have to spend the entire day talking with the mango salesman. You can practice by listening to the radio, watching TV, and reading an article a day in the newspaper; the more you’re exposed to the language, the easier it will click!
While Swahili is nothing like English or the Romance languages, don’t be afraid. Here are some tips to help you out! Free websites like will make learning Swahili more fun that just scanning through a dictionary. Watching foreign language films (first with the subtitles, then without them) also helps.
Last, linking words to images, sounds, and other words will improve memory recognition. For example, the word raha means joy in Swahili. It sounds similar to “haha” but with an “r”. Haha is a joyous sound, so you’ll be more likely to think of the word raha now after making that connection.
Benefits & Challenges
One benefit of learning Swahili abroad, instead of with online tools as mentioned earlier (or with your run-of-the-mill local teacher), is that you will get to practice the language with people who actually speak it. Nothing can replace ongoing daily communication in the target language, surrounded by individuals who speak with perfect cadence, pronunciation, and other hard-to-describe (and subsequently understand) lovely subtleties that make your second language sound more natural than robotic. Your ears will be dancing (and not just because those catchy Disney songs are stuck in your head) with Swahili surrounding you daily.
One thing to get used to while learning Swahili abroad is the lack of privacy. Curious people will ask you personal questions. A lot of them. Answering questions like “Are you married?” might put you off-guard if you haven’t even started college, but don’t take it personally. These types of questions will just highlight their general curiosity, and you’ll get to share your own culture with them. Don’t be surprised if that old man on the bus who is going to mosque asks you how much money you make. As a foreigner, you will automatically be a target for these types of questions. You don’t have to answer them if you’re not comfortable enough to, but if you are, you’ll practice more Swahili. You wouldn’t be able to practice Swahili with strangers at home now, would you?
There’s no doubt that Swahili is one of the most commonly spoken “bridge” languages in Africa. If you plan to live, work, or travel in East Africa, speaking Swahili will cross cultural divides because of a common language with the locals. Taking on Swahili language courses abroad will be an unforgettable safari, so what are you waiting for?