Swahili is a widely spoken language that can be heard in several east African countries and even around the world. Over 100 million people speak the language, and learning this language provides unique access to aspects of East African culture.
Learning Swahili is hard because of the language’s complex grammatical structures. Reading, learning vocabulary, and pronouncing words are much easier to learn, but producing grammatically-correct sentences proves to be more challenging for new learners.
In the rest of this article, we will break down the parts of learning Swahili that are easy for English speakers and the parts that are more challenging. We will also see what you can do to get started today with your Swahili learning journey.
What Makes Swahili Hard To Learn?
Swahili can be hard to learn because the language has complicated grammatical structures and little resemblance to English. Therefore, beginners will have to learn a new vocabulary and complex grammar rules, but usually find reading and pronunciation to be easier.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the language’s elements.
When it comes to learning the individual words that make up Swahili, coming from English is of little help. There are a few words in Swahili that you will recognize easily, like “polisi” for police or “hoteli” for hotel. However, these similar words will only get you so far.
Swahili isn’t a romance language, so cognates are much less common than in a language like Spanish or Portuguese. This means you will have to start from scratch when it comes to learning key vocabulary words.
However, if you already know Arabic, you have a bit of a head start. According to the BBC, about 35% of Swahili words can be traced to Arabic. Therefore, if you already know these words, you are at an advantage when it comes to understanding the language and building your vocabulary.
Luckily, the pronunciation of Swahili words is usually fairly simple for an English speaker. There are no tones or other pronunciation aspects involved that are extremely different from English. With some practice, an English speaker will be pronouncing Swahili words well in no time.
Once you get down the basic pronunciation, reading Swahili is quite straightforward. It is written like it is spoken, making it simple for language learners to practice. The only difference you will notice is that there is no letter Q or X in Swahili.
Further back in history, Swahili was written using Arabic script. You may see this in various historical contexts, but it is not an obstacle for modern-day language learning. Nowadays, there is no new script to learn, as it uses the Latin alphabet.
Reading is one of the best tools to use in your daily language learning practice. By finding Swahili reading materials that are comprehensive to you at your level, you can spend immersion time with these texts. This will help you internalize the grammatical structures you find as you acquire new vocabulary words in context.
The hardest part about Swahili for the language learner is the grammar. This language’s grammatical constructs are widely different from what we are used to in the English language. When grammar is conceptually and functionally so different, it will take more exposure to the language to effectively get the hang of it.
The most notable part of Swahili grammar for language learners is the concept of noun classes. There are eighteen different genders in the language. This is far more than an English speaker is used to, and it can take time to grasp the concept fully. Once the learner understands it, it will take even more time to start to produce sentences correctly.
For the subject of the sentence, its gender will impact its verb and any other descriptive words applied to it. This means that a language learner will be exposed to a lot of variation for a single verb or adjective.
Conjugating verbs in Swahili can get complicated as well. Expressing basic ideas can be done well by language learners, but more advanced thoughts can be tricky to express correctly. In Swahili, there are many verb tenses that represent concepts we don’t have in English grammar.
There are specific ways to conjugate verbs based on the amount of certainty. If a situation is uncertain, it impacts the grammar in a way that is different from English. Understanding the conceptual part of this is important for language learners who want to make more advanced progress in the language’s grammar.
Tools To Get Started Learning Swahili
The only real way to know how hard the language will be for you is to get started practicing with it. One free and easy thing you can try is downloading an app and giving the tasks a try. Here are a few of the top mobile applications for learning Swahili.
Duolingo is one of the biggest names in language learning apps. You can download it for free and work through its mini-lessons that are arranged in a game-like structure. It has Swahili as one of its languages, and you can start from the beginning with the basics on this app.
Duolingo is free for its users and entices them to come back each day to earn different points and prizes on the platform. The mini-lessons are divided by topic, giving you different categories of vocabulary to practice or specific practice in a particular grammar tense. You are encouraged to repeat the lessons, strengthening your understanding of the topic through repetition.
If you’re looking for a Swahili-specific app, you can try downloading Learn Swahili Free here from the Google Play store. When you open this app, you will access lessons divided up by category. Altogether, you can learn over 9000 of the most common words in Swahili from this app.
The app prides itself on its clear audio quality, meaning you can listen to great recorded pronunciation in order to improve your own. Additionally, it has 32 languages that it can translate from. This means that you can likely learn Swahili directly from your native language or the language you feel most comfortable learning from.
There are many aspects of Swahili that will be easy for the language learner to master. With a background in Arabic, vocabulary can be quickly acquired. Even for learners who only speak English, Swahili pronunciation is quite regular and straightforward. Vocabulary can be learned without many challenges as well.
From here, reading is intuitive and can be learned rapidly. Grammar will likely be the most challenging part for learners of Swahili.