Zulu is a Bantu language in the Nguni language group, primarily spoken in South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, and nearby countries. Today, over 10 million people speak this language, so learning it can help you get around in Southern Africa – but how hard is it to learn to speak Zulu?
Zulu is one of the most accessible African languages for English speakers to learn. With daily practice, you could be conversation-ready in 42 weeks to a year. Zulu’s pronunciation and writing are straightforward, but learning the grammar and vocabulary might take more effort.
So, let’s discuss the basics of the Zulu language and talk about the most challenging parts of mastering it. I’ll help you get a good idea of what you might struggle with and put everything in simple terms so that you can understand what you might need to focus on to learn Zulu.
How Hard is Zulu to Learn, Really?
The first step to learning Zulu is to master the sounds that all the letters make. These sounds won’t be too unfamiliar to a native English speaker, but there are some differences between English and Zulu pronunciation.
Zulu vowels, unlike English vowels, always make the same sounds. The vowels and their pronunciations are:
- “A” sounds like “ah” in “father.”
- “E” sounds like the “e” in “egg.”
- “I” sounds like “ih” in “inn.”
- “O” sounds like the “oh” in “old.”
- “U” sounds like the “ooh” in “tube.”
- “Y” sounds like the “y” in “yes.”
It uses some consonant combinations that may be challenging to pronounce at first, like the “hl” in kahle (well) and the “dl” in isidlo (meal). Still, these sounds are primarily phonetic, so if you’re ever in doubt, sound them out!
Zulu also uses three clicking sounds, which might take some practice to master. These clicks are represented by the letters “c,” “x,” and “q,” and each one makes a unique sound.
To hear how the clicks sound and to learn more about Zulu vowel pronunciation, check out this brief instructional video from TheHopebridge on YouTube:
Accents and Tones
Zulu is a tonal language. This means that when you raise your voice’s pitch or put stress on a particular syllable of a word, you convey its meaning. Sometimes, words that sound similar can only be differentiated by tone, which might be challenging for English speakers at first.
Luckily, it only has two tones – high and low – which make things a little easier.
When pronouncing high tones, you will raise the pitch of your voice as if you are asking a question. When you pronounce low tones, you will lower your pitch as if you were commanding someone in English.
One thing that many English-speakers struggle with when learning African languages is vocabulary.
Zulu is not directly related to English or other romance languages, so you probably won’t be able to recognize many of the words. Essentially, when learning Zulu, you have to start your language-learning process from the most elementary level.
Still, as with all languages, practice makes perfect. When studying Zulu vocabulary, it’s essential to master pronunciation while you memorize words. As you get a handle on shorter, introductory vocab, other, longer words will start to make more sense.
Try to say every word you study, ideally while using flashcards, and repeat the words until they’re easy to speak. Then, when confronted with new terms, you’ll be able to quickly pronounce them and remember old vocab both with your eyes and your ears.
Zulu grammar is perhaps the hardest part of learning the language. This is because many of the concepts may seem utterly foreign to you.
The language is heavily based on prefixes and suffixes. These affixes can change the person, number, and tense of a verb or change the case and the number of a noun. You will have to memorize all of them, which may take time. However, once you’ve memorized them, Zulu will be much easier.
Zulu has 16 noun classes, which are divided based on the prefix of each noun and whether the noun is singular or plural.
For example, nouns that start with the prefix “um-” or “umu-,” as in umúntu (person) are from class one.
Nouns that start with the prefix “aba-” as in abántu (people) belong to class two.
As you can see, when the prefix and class of the same noun changed, it became plural. So, essentially, each noun is either singular or plural based on class. By changing the word’s prefix, you make it plural. This is similar to how we change the word “noun” to “nouns” in English by using a suffix.
In the same way, adding certain prefixes to nouns can make them possessive, locative (explains where a person is), or copulative (which replaces the verb “to be” in a sentence).
Verbs – they’re always the most challenging part of learning a new language. Zulu verbs are no exception, especially given that they heavily rely on prefixes and suffixes to make sense in a sentence.
In a simple sentence, a verb can communicate an entire sentence just by using different affixes. You might formulate a Zulu verb as:
Subject prefix + object prefix + verb stem
ngiyambona (I see him/her)
Is made up of Ngi (I) + yam (him/her) + bona (see)
Other prefixes and suffixes can denote tense and mood.
Writing Zulu letters is incredibly simple for English speakers since the language uses the Latin alphabet.
Like many African languages, Zulu was not written down until Christian missionaries came to South Africa. During their time in Africa, missionaries strove to teach the native peoples English, and in the process, Zulu became a written language.
Because English missionaries colonized South Africa and the surrounding areas, Zulu was written with the English alphabet. Many of the sounds in Zulu were transliterated, meaning that the Englishmen broke down all the sounds peculiar to Zulu into similar English consonant and vowel combinations.
However, I must say something about the difference between Standard and Urban Zulu.
Standard Zulu is the language taught in most schools. It is the purest form of Zulu and is very similar to the variety of Zulu that Christian missionaries recorded some 200 years ago.
However, Urban Zulu is the variety that you will hear the most among the Zulu-speakers of Southern Africa. Urban Zulu uses loan words from English and Afrikaans, especially for everyday items such as cell phones, cars, and computers.
So, learning Urban Zulu is much easier than learning Standard Zulu since you will recognize many of the words.
That said, most Urban Zulu speakers understand Standard Zulu, and the two varieties are very similar, so learning either one will help you speak with native speakers.
When it boils down to it, Zulu is relatively easy to learn as long as you spend the time necessary to memorize the grammatical prefixes, suffixes, and vocabulary. The three clicks may also be challenging at first. However, it should only take a day or two to get those down as long as you practice.
2 thoughts on “How Hard is Zulu to Learn?”
Great article. Thanks so much. I have loved this language for many years, being drawn to it from the amazing music coming out of South Africa, particularly Soweto Gospel Choir and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I am a word nerd and language geek as well, and have fantasized about learning the language for some time, but never really looked into it until now. This article covers exactly what I wanted to know. Thanks and happy language-learning!
Hey Sam, very happy to hear you enjoyed the content. The less spoken languages I find to very often be the most interesting.