SOAS University of London

African Languages, Cultures and Literatures Section

Languages of Africa at SOAS: Swahili

Swahili belongs to the Bantu family of languages such as Gĩkũyũ, Lingala, Bemba or Zulu which are spoken throughout east, central and southern Africa. It has also absorbed words from non-Bantu languages such as Arabic, Persian, Portuguese and latterly, English. Swahili is known by its speakers as Kiswahili and is spoken by approximately 80 million people in several states of East Africa, chiefly in Tanzania (which includes Zanzibar and Pemba Islands), Kenya, eastern Congo (DRC), and in the Comoro Islands. Swahili is the principal language of communication and social interaction wherever the populations are multiethnic. It is also spoken by many in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, and is a national and official language in Tanzania and Kenya, which means that it is used as a language of correspondence in government and commerce, alongside English. It is taught as a subject at primary and tertiary levels, and studied at universities in Kenya and Tanzania. The language also has a significant presence in major cities of Europe and the United States where African Diaspora communities are found, and in the Gulf states such as Oman. Among those studying Swahili at SOAS, a number aspire to work in journalism, tourism, hospitality, teaching and research, or working with international, charitable or non government organisations. Others aspire to use their knowledge of Swahili to engage in outdoor work for example in national parks, writing, TV and film production. The library of SOAS holds the largest collection of Swahili manuscripts in Britain. There are more than 100 original manuscripts dating from the 1790’s to the 1970s, many of them in Arabic script.

If you would like to learn Swahili contact Dr Chege Githiora ( in the Africa Section of the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics.

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