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How To Learn Swahili Online – Tips and Tricks To Get You Started

Learn Swahili

Learning Swahili will unlock opportunities: you will be able to travel through over a dozen countries, make friends across East Africa, get a new job, or enjoy powerful TV shows and poignant books in their original language.

If you already know know your way around learning Swahili and want to get started with our Swahili resource reviews and recommendations, check out these posts:

Discover the best strategies, resources, and tips to learn Swahili and create your study plan today. How to speak swahili? Is swahili easy to learn? Read on.

Yet what’s the best way to learn Swahili? How long will it take? Which resources should you use? Hold tight, because we’re about to explore everything you need to know to learn Swahili.

We’ll look at where Swahili is spoken, how to create your personalized Swahili study plan, and how difficult Swahili actually is. We’ll also sum up some additional Swahili resources that work well as supplements to your main learning resources, from Swahili books, movies, and other authentic media resources. Let’s get started.

Learn Swahili: A Quick Glimpse at the Swahili Language

Look up blog posts about Swahili, and it won’t take you long to discover that you already know at least two words: hakuna and matata. Yet Swahili is far more than just the language of Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba.

With over 100 million speakers, Swahili is spoken by more people than Italian, German, and Korean. It boasts not only a fascinating past but also a linguistic beauty. You’ll overhear it spoken in major cities such as Nairobi, and you can read epic poetry in it – and you’re in for a treat when you do because we think it sounds beautiful.

Swahili, also known as kiswahili, has been a lingua franca on the East African coast for over 1,000 years. As Arab traders and African city-states mingled, a new identity and language emerged: one that was Bantu, but with heavy Arabic influences.

In fact, even the word “Swahili” comes from the Arabic word meaning “of the coast,” while the oldest Swahili literature in existence was written in an Arabic script.

Lilac-breasted roller perches on a branch in Tanzania

A lilac-breasted roller, common to savannah regions in East Africa. Credit: Bradley Feller

Bantu languages are spoken across most of Sub-Saharan Africa, and include Zulu and Lingala as well as Swahili. You can tell that Swahili is a Bantu language because of its grammar and extensive Bantu vocabulary. It has lots of affixes and most of its phonemes end in a vowel. Consonant clusters are rare.

However, Swahili is unusual for a Bantu language in that it isn’t tonal. No matter what pitch you say the words in, their meaning remains the same – although, just like in English, you’ll still risk sounding shocked or bored if you go too high or low-pitched.

Due to centuries of trade and then colonialism, Swahili also has Hindi, Persian, English, Portuguese, and German loan words, such as elektroniki, padre, and kilo.

Today, it is an official language in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo, Rwanda, and South Sudan, and a recognized minority language in Mozambique, Burundi, Oman, and Somalia. It is also spoken in Malawi, Zambia, and Madagascar.

An outdoor swimming pool partially obscured by trees in Mombasa

Mombasa, Kenya. Credit: Harshil Gudka

How to Learn Swahili: Some Quick Tips

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to studying a language. The best way to learn Swahili will depend on you and your goals, time restraints, preferred learning methods, and more. If you hate reading, then an audio course will probably suit you more than a textbook. Meanwhile, if you’re trying to cut down on smartphone use, a mobile app might not be the best option.

That said, there are some questions you can ask yourself to help you develop the ideal Swahili study schedule: one that will be effective, keep you motivated, and help you make the best use of your time.

Why Are You Learning Swahili?

Perhaps you want to move to Nairobi, go on an East African safari, or stay in touch with a Ugandan exchange student after they’ve returned home. Maybe your romantic partner has Swahili as a first language, and you’d like to talk to them in their mother tongue. Or it could be that you have trading partners in Tanzania, and you feel that speaking some Swahili would be a good way to break the ice.

Achieving each of these goals will involve learning different types of vocabulary and honing certain skill sets. If you’re using Swahili for business, you’ll want to learn polite phrases and industry-specific jargon. Meanwhile, your romantic partner is less likely to be impressed by your ability to discuss upstream supply chains in their language.

Travelers will benefit from basic hotel and shopping vocabulary, and probably don’t need to worry too much about grammar or advanced vocabulary. Meanwhile, if you’re messaging an ex-coursemate on social media, you’ll want to not only learn slang but also improve your reading and writing.

Write down your aims and then think about what you’ll need to focus on. Things to consider include reading, writing, listening, speaking, formality, and types of vocabulary.

Bear in mind that no matter what your goals are, it’s a good idea to learn a bit of everything. It would be a shame if, after impressing your suppliers with your Swahili via email, you struggled to understand them on the phone. However, you can give more weight in your studies to the skills and topics that will be most beneficial to you.

The tops of skyscrapers in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania at dawn. Credit: Rohan Reddy

How Much Time Do You Have to Spare?

Some people are lucky enough to have hours a day free for Swahili study. Others barely have 20 minutes, what with work, studies, family, friends, the gym, and other hobbies. But it doesn’t matter if you have 20 minutes or 2 hours: the only thing that’s important is that you’re consistent.

Instead of pressuring yourself to fit in a language class every day, followed by homework, Swahili apps, and journaling, be honest with yourself about how much time you have. This will help you plan the most time-efficient and effective study activities.

Try to study more days than you take off, but remember that you also need time to relax. Don’t schedule so much study time that you end up with language-learning burnout. Although you’ll progress quickly at the beginning, your eagerness to learn Swahili will soon disappear as you start to dread study sessions.

Remember, you’re going to benefit from speaking Swahili for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to learn it.

That said, how much time you have spare will affect the types of resources you use. And on that note…

A herd of elephants cross the road behind a jeep in East Africa

Give way to elephants.

How Do You Learn Best?

We’re going to look at a huge range of resources in this article: online classes, courses, apps, podcasts, textbooks, flashcards, YouTube videos, movies, fictional books, music, the news, and more. But you can also try:

  • Keeping a Swahili-language journal
  • Labeling things around your home in Swahili
  • Writing shopping and to-do lists in Swahili
  • Using fridge magnets to write messages in Swahili
  • Coming up with Swahili puns
  • Creating word storms on a topic
  • Recording yourself speaking in Swahili (remember, nobody has to hear it – not even you)
  • Listening to a Swahili speaker, recording yourself saying the same thing, and then comparing the two clips
  • Shadowing a Swahili speaker, i.e. listening to a recording and speaking the same words at the same time as them to improve your speaking speed, intonation, and stress
  • Writing short stories, poems, articles, or even a blog in Swahili
  • Switching your phone and social media to Swahili
  • Following Swahili hashtags, vloggers, and influencers
  • Joining Swahili-language forums and social media groups related to your hobbies
  • Talking to yourself in Swahili
  • Thinking in Swahili

Not all of these resources and activities will suit every learner, however. Pushing yourself to use a resource or a language-learning trick that bores you is only going to leave you demotivated.

Instead, think about what you like to do and how you normally learn best. Then, try a few of these options out. There’s rarely a perfect resource, so you’ll likely find yourself combining some of them for a well-rounded study routine.

And if you find something is no longer effective a few months in, don’t be afraid to switch resources. Sometimes, what works for us as beginners is no longer the best tool once we’ve got a grasp on the basics.

A brightly lit street lined with dark buildings in Nairobi

Nairobi at night. Credit: Yonko Kilasi, Kilasi Photography

Is Swahili Easy to Learn?

One study found that it takes an English speaker around 900 hours to learn Swahili. That makes it quicker and easier to pick up than Hindi, Welsh, Polish, or Arabic, although slightly harder than German and quite a bit harder than most Latin languages.

Here’s the thing, though: language learning is all about psychology. If you’re convinced that Swahili is too difficult, if you’re bored, or if you’re fixated on what you can’t do, then learning Swahili will be a struggle. But if you’re having fun and celebrating your accomplishments, Swahili won’t seem as hard.

Of course, “as hard” is relative. There will always be challenging aspects. For example, Swahili grammar is pretty different from English. The 18 noun classes can be tough to wrap your head around at first.

Yet learners often describe Swahili as a logical language. If you’re an analytical person who likes recognizing patterns, you might find learning the grammar quite satisfying.

Plus, the pronunciation is fairly straightforward. And, unlike with many Asian and Middle Eastern languages, you won’t need to learn a new script.

Whether you enjoy mastering grammar or not, it’s worth finding ways to keep motivated and have fun. Let’s look at how to learn Swahili – without getting stressed out, demotivated, or overwhelmed.

The snow-covered summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, with clouds in the background

Snow, clouds, and bright skies at Mt. Kilimanjaro. Credit: Joel Peel

What’s the Best Way to Learn Swahili?

Learning Swahili, like any language, requires dedication, practice, and exposure. Here are some tips to help you learn Swahili effectively:

Take an Online Course

Platforms like Coursera and edX often offer free introductory Swahili courses. You can also explore paid courses for more in-depth learning. Courses are structured and course creators understand the importance of concepts such as interleaving and vocabulary revision to help you learn quickly and effectively.

Use Flashcards to Aid Vocabulary Building

Create flashcards to memorize Swahili vocabulary. Apps like Anki and Quizlet can be helpful.

Travel to Swahili-Speaking Regions

If possible, visit Swahili-speaking countries to practice the language in real-life situations.

Seek Feedback

Request feedback on your pronunciation and language usage from native speakers or language teachers.

What’s the Easiest Way to Learn Swahili?

Immersing yourself in Swahili literature is considered one of the easiest ways to learn Swahili due to its comprehensive nature. Literature exposes learners to an array of vocabulary, sentence structures, and cultural nuances, which fosters a deeper understanding of the language.

Through novels, short stories, and poetry, learners encounter diverse linguistic styles and expressions that mirror authentic communication. Reading provides context for grammar rules and helps learners internalize language patterns naturally. If books are not really your thing, immersing yourself in Swahili films provides a dynamic and engaging approach to learning the language, making it one of the easiest ways to acquire Swahili proficiency.

Films offer a multisensory experience that combines auditory and visual elements, aiding in the retention of vocabulary, pronunciation, and cultural context. 

How to Learn Swahili Fast 

The fastest way to learn Swahili is to practice consistently. It takes around 900 hours to learn Swahili, and so dedicating a specific amount of time each day to learning Swahili will help you hit those 900 hours faster. Consistency is key in language acquisition.

How to Speak Swahili 

Make use of Swahili textbooks, phrasebooks, and dictionaries. Swahili for the East African Certificate and Kiswahili: Msingi wa Kusema, Kusoma, na Kuandika are popular choices that are readily available from bookshops or maybe your local library if you don’t want to spend money.

You can also practice with Native Speakers and other learners of Swahili. Join language exchange meetups or online communities to practice speaking with native Swahili speakers. This helps improve your pronunciation and conversational skills. You can salso find a language exchange partner who speaks Swahili. Websites like Tandem and HelloTalk connect language learners worldwide.

Can You Learn Swahili for Free? 

Yes! There are a lot of free language apps available that often offer basic Swahili lessons for free. Use language learning apps like Duolingo, Memrise, or Drops to gain access to free Swahili lessons. 

You can also use YouTube to find Swahili teachers who provide free Swahili lessons and pronunciation guides, and Swahili speaking influencers have channels in all kinds of niches so you can find videos that interest you.  

Finally, websites like BBC Languages and Peace Corps offer free Swahili resources.

Additional Swahili Learning Resources

Supplementary Swahili learning resources can help enrich your language-learning experience. By incorporating media such as books, news, films, and television into your routine, you will learn more about Swahili and how it is used by natives.

Swahili Textbooks and Reference Books

Whether you study alone or with a teacher, a textbook can give structure to your studies and make your progress visible. Just make sure to get in plenty of speaking practice as well.

While almost 50 years old, Peter M. Wilson’s Simplified Swahili is highly praised for its beginner-level grammatical explanations. That said, it is both simplified and dated. We wouldn’t recommend using this textbook alone.

Swahili: A Complete Course for Beginners is a popular but expensive textbook with lots of cultural notes for learners.

Swahili Made Easy: A Beginner’s Guide by J. F. Safari is hit and miss: some students love it, but others find it unusable due to the high number of typos and lack of white space on the pages.

Learn Swahili Quickly and Easily by Laurence Wood and Jaba Tumaini Shadrack purposefully avoids all grammatical terms but claims to “still get the ideas across.” It’s popular with students, but you have to buy the audio files separately and from a different website.

Swahili Grammar and Workbook is pricey, but if you’re struggling with your grammar, it will give you plenty of exercises to work with.

If you don’t mind old textbooks, you can also legally use these free scanned books. They were created by the Foreign Services Institute and are hosted by Live Lingua. Bear in mind that the text can be hard to read, due to how dated the materials are.

A young woman reads a Swahili textbook in front of a bookshelf.

Study sessions in the library.

Swahili Fiction Books and Plays

Swahili fiction won’t just improve your reading and introduce you to new vocabulary. It will immerse you in East African culture, inspire you to tears and laughter alike, and keep you up until 3 am as you read on, desperate to find out how the story ends.

You’ll find dual language children’s stories from the UK-based shop Mantra Lingua. While the selection is limited, it could help you ease into reading in Swahili.

Ready to skip the English and dive straight into Swahili-only books? African Storybook has more than 400 free children’s stories; just make sure to choose Kiswahili from the menu. We think it’s great for beginners.

Ken Walibora is a household name in Kenya, and his books are often studied in high school. Start with Siku Njema. If you like it, you’ve got plenty more to choose from: Walibora wrote more than 40 books before his shocking and untimely death in 2020.

David Kyeu’s Kibali explores what it means to be an LGBTQ woman seeking a divorce when the court favors the husband.

And if you like more literary texts that still pack a punch, try Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Shetani Msalabani. It was originally written in the Kenyan Bantu language Gikuyu before being translated to Swahili and integrates traditional story-telling rhythms. There are plenty of metaphors and hidden meanings to uncover in this novel, which examines the impact of corruption.

Woman sits on bed and reads Swahili hardback novel.

Become engrossed in a Swahili book.

Swahili Movies

Sometimes, there’s nothing better than spending a rainy Sunday evening watching a movie and drinking tea. Put your language skills to the test by picking one that’s in Swahili. It will help you practice your listening, pick up new vocabulary, and learn natural phrases.

With the app Swahiliflix, you can watch a variety of Swahili movies, no matter where you are. Alternatively, keep an eye out for some of these:

In the Kenyan movie Kati Kati, a young woman with no memory of her life or death has to come to terms with the fact that she’s in the afterlife.

Pili tells the story of a Tanzanian woman who is HIV positive and striving to create a better life for her and her children. Movies like this can often reinforce racist stereotypes or become poverty porn, but the semi-improvised script was approved by a community of Tanzanian people with HIV living in rural areas. 65% of the cast were HIV positive at the time of filming.

The Kenyan thriller 40 Sticks divides viewers: some adore the twist, others consider it weak and too obviously made with a low budget. That said, you might be able to find it on Netflix, so it’s worth a try.

You can also watch more well-known movies such as Black Panther and Primeval in Swahili.

Young woman sits on bed, drinks coffee, and watches a Swahili movie.

Swahili and chill on the weekend.

News, Music, and Other Resources for Learning Swahili

Looking for more ways to immerse yourself in Swahili, while also learning more about East African culture? Try listening to Swahili music. There are several unofficial Spotify playlists you can listen to, such as Swahili Hits 2018–2020, Kiswahili Muziki, and Swahili Ballads.

Reading (or listening to) the news will help you pick up new Swahili phrases, as well as keeping you up to date. Since every news site has its own editorial slant and writing style, it’s worth checking a few out. Here are some local and international options:

As you come across new words and phrases, you’ll want to look them up in the dictionary (and possibly add them to those flashcard apps we mentioned earlier). AfricanLanguages.com has an online Swahili-English dictionary, as do Bab.la (review) and the subscription-only iTranslate (review). Tatoeba has community-generated translations and example sentences for some Swahili words – although the translations aren’t always error-free.

Young man reads a Swahili-language newspaper

Staying up to date with the latest news.

Once you start learning Swahili, you’ll find there’s no shortage of opportunities to use it. So, what are you waiting for? Download a flashcard app, try out a few of these courses, and start browsing for tutors. It won’t take long until you’re able to talk confidently in Swahili.

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