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Learn Swahili With These Tips, Tricks & Resources

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View of Kilimanjaro with text: Your one-stop guide to learning 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.

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 of the Swahili resources available, from courses and classes through to apps, podcasts, movies, and books. (And we’ll tell you which ones to avoid, too.) Let’s get started.

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 Difficult Is Swahili?

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

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.

1. 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

2. 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.

3. 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

Resources for Learning Swahili

Now we’ve talked about how to pick the right study methods and create a study plan, let’s look at the resources available for learning Swahili. There are plenty of options for you to choose from.

Online Swahili Classes and Language Exchanges

There’s nothing like working with a tutor or participating in a language exchange to improve your speaking and listening. Plus, you’ll get feedback on your errors and can learn more natural phrases than most textbooks and courses have to offer.

Online Classes

italki is the most well-known online teacher marketplace. It often has the widest selection of teachers and the lowest prices. While we’re not a fan of its payment processing options, we like its extra features: download the app to share your Swahili writing and audio recordings for critiques and corrections from the community.

Verbling has a small number of Swahili teachers. The teacher application seems to be slightly more rigorous than on italki, although you’ll still find unqualified tutors on there. We also prefer Verbling’s online classroom and payment options. However, there’s no denying that you have fewer teachers to choose from.

If you like getting lots of feedback, you might like Verbal Planet’s system. You’ll get detailed reports after every class. However, they only have two Swahili teachers at the time of writing this article.

AmazingTalker has a small selection of Swahili teachers for you to choose from. Teachers undergo a selection process, and the lesson prices are relatively low.

Justlearn offers subscription-based Swahili classes, allowing you to sign up for two to six 25-minute classes a month. All tutors are verified and native speakers, although Justlearn doesn’t explain their recruitment process.

Apprentus also has a range of Swahili teachers. Some of them offer group classes and structured courses. You can also book classes for children and teenagers.

You might also find online teachers via local jobs boards and tutor marketplaces, such as the UK-based FirstTutors: Languages and the US-based Wyzant. When using a platform like this, pay attention to the terms and conditions; while some offer payment protection or review teachers’ qualifications, others don’t.

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Young woman sits outside and takes an online Swahili class on her laptop.

Learn to give opinions confidently in online Swahili classes.

Community Feedback

Sometimes, you don’t want a whole class. You just want a native speaker to explain an idiom or tell you if you’ve conjugated something correctly. That’s where community-feedback platforms come in handy.

With the HiNative app, you can post questions and help out other learners with their language-related queries. We find their points system rewarding and think it’s a good choice for just about any learner.

The WordReference forum doesn’t have a lot of Swahili content, but if you can’t get answers to your questions on HiNative or don’t fancy signing up for another app, it’s worth trying. After all, you never know who’s lurking. Alternatively, try the Swahili and Learn Swahili subs on Reddit, both dedicated to learning the language. The Swahili subreddit is more active.

Looking for feedback on your writing? We’ve already mentioned italki’s community features. You can also check out LangCorrect, although you might struggle to find many Swahili speakers there.

Language Exchanges

Ready to put your Swahili into practice? It’s time for a language exchange.

Ease yourself into it with a messaging app like Speaky (reviewed here), Tandem (reviewed here), or HelloTalk (reviewed here). The great thing about these apps is that it doesn’t matter if you live in rural Nebraska, the Faroe Islands, or the Australian Outback: you still have a chance of chatting with a Swahili speaker.

Alternatively, look for an in-person language exchange. MeetUp has several Swahili groups in locations as diverse as Paris, Tokyo, and Mississauga in Canada. You can also set up your own group or go to a general language exchange where you might bump into another Swahili speaker (and if not, at least you’ll still be able to chat about language-learning). Alternatively, try looking in Facebook groups and events.

Just remember to be sensibly cautious when meeting with strangers. Go to events in public places, don’t feel pressured to give out your contact details unless you want to, and leave if something feels off.

Two girls in a bar laugh and talk in Swahili.

Making new friends at Swahili language exchanges.

Swahili Language Courses: Online, App-Based & Audio

You won’t find Swahili on Rosetta Stone, Babble, or Busuu, but there’s a surprisingly wide large number of courses to choose from.

Swahili Courses: Our Top Picks

Mango Languages is targeted at beginner and lower-intermediate students and will quickly get you making your own sentences. We think it’s effective and like the focus on pronunciation. You can record yourself speaking and then play the audio clip over a native speaker’s, allowing you to spot where your pronunciation or stress isn’t quite right.

SwahiliPod101 contains a plethora of video and audio courses. Some of them stand-alone, while others build on each other. We think it can feel unstructured, but it’s great for listening practice and contains an incredible amount of lessons.

Struggling with your grammar? Consider using the Language Transfer audio course as a supplementary resource. It focuses on helping you understand grammar so you can build your own sentences. We found the 110-lesson Swahili course unintimidating, relaxed, and encouraging. However, you jump straight in without covering essential information and there aren’t many exercises, so you’ll probably want to combine it with other resources.

Pimsleur is an audio course with thorough lessons and lots of drilling. It can be short on grammar, however, which can be particularly frustrating with a language like Swahili. Plus, the 30-minute lesson times can progress slowly. In many ways, it’s the opposite of Language Transfer – so you might find you like using them alongside each other.

An absolute beginner's Swahili class from SwahiliPod101 is open on a tablet.

Listening and vocabulary practice for beginners via SwahiliPod101.

Swahili Courses Like Duolingo

Duolingo’s Swahili course has a bad reputation, but it’s much better than it used to be. For example, they recently added audio. However, some users still complain about errors. And while Duolingo can be fun, there are other, similar apps out there.

We think Ling is an entertaining Duolingo-esque app that’s well-suited to beginners. We like the native-speaker audio and speaking and writing features, none of which Duolingo has. That said, we would stay away from the web version of the app, where we found it mixed Lithuanian script with Swahili audio. The mobile version, meanwhile, worked fine.

Memrise doesn’t have any official Swahili courses, but there are several community-made ones that go from beginner to advanced. In our experience, Memrise can be a fun and effective way to learn vocabulary and grammar, but the quality of community-made courses can vary.

More Swahili Courses

Swahili Dar Language School has several video-based courses on their website. We haven’t been able to try them out, but you can get a taster of the teacher’s style on their YouTube channel.

OPLingo has over 100 Swahili listening comprehension activities. You can mark the new vocabulary to help you keep track of them. They also have some impressive extra features, including the ability to import your own Swahili texts and look up vocabulary. If you sign up for a paid membership, the profits are used to fund social impact initiatives, including building a school in Tanzania.

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Man in kitchen studies an online Swahili course and smiles.

The right online course makes studying Swahili fun.

For lower intermediate students, Glossika will get you picking up Swahili through the heavy repetition of phrases. We think it’s similar to Pimsleur, although the quality doesn’t seem quite as high. In particular, we felt the exercises were poorly thought out, and it can be buggy.

Global Language Online Support System has an assortment of Swahili exercises and lessons. They don’t logically build on from each other, but they can be a good way to add some variety to your language studies. Don’t forget to click the instructions button in the upper right-hand corner if you’re unsure about what to do.

Looking for something for young children? Dino Lingo will teach them Swahili through videos and games. Although we’re not convinced by all the videos, it’s a fun option for little learners.

The 29-lesson Teach Yourself Swahili CD course from S L & C Swahili Language & Culture may not run on modern operating systems. However, you can access a PDF version of the course for free here. It contains grammar breakdowns and an extensive amount of vocabulary, although you’re probably best using it with a teacher (or the CD, if you’re willing to risk buying something that might not work on your computer). If you do buy the CD, all proceeds go to the Texas-based non-profit Msaada Educational Foundation.

The Learn Swahili app from Samba Kamara/Linguarena is best used alongside a flashcard app or even another course. We think it lacks sufficient exercises and drills. However, we like the native audio and cultural information, as well as the wide range of phrases it teaches.

Many of the links on Kiswahili Web at UPenn will take you to 404 pages, but you can still find some exercises. For example, there are fill-in-the-blanks activities based on audio clips here, and more listening exercises here. Bear in mind that you need to download the audio to your computer.

You’ll also find Swahili courses on course marketplace Udemy. Make sure to read the syllabus and reviews before purchasing, however: since Udemy is just a marketplace, the quality and content can vary greatly. You’re probably best off waiting for a sale, too.

Young woman at home types in Swahili on her laptop as part of an online course.

Study Swahili courses at home with your laptop or on the go with your phone.

Swahili Language Courses You Should (Probably) Avoid

A bad language course won’t just waste your time or money. It can teach you incorrect Swahili, or perhaps even worse, leave you demotivated and lacking confidence. And so we can’t recommend these courses:

10 years ago, Instant Immersion probably wasn’t a bad option. It comes with MP3 files, computer software, and workbooks. Yet we don’t believe it’s stood the test of time. There are better options available, especially given that prices start at $34.95.

Bluebird Languages has lots of videos and we like the native audio. However, when using it for under-resourced languages, we came across a lot of fundamental errors. If you’re tempted by it, we would ask a teacher to check it first.

We found the Living Language course ineffective, poorly structured, and a bad use of time. As we worked our way through it, we felt we learned more about how to game the system than how to speak the language.

You’ll find Complete Language Lessons’ audio course Learn Swahili Easily, Effectively, and Fluently on Amazon, Spotify, and Deezer. The audio quality isn’t great, but that’s the least of the issues with this CD. It seems to consist of Swahili phrases repeated over and over again, without translations or explanations, and with occasional muted club music in the background. We wondered if it’s supposed to accompany a textbook, but we couldn’t find one.

In our experience, 17 Minute Languages is dull, lacks explanations, and is full of errors. The only thing we liked was the native-speaker audio – but there are plenty of better courses offering that.

As for Transparent Language, it’s well-designed but we don’t believe you’ll be able to speak Swahili after using it. That’s because it doesn’t teach you grammar or sentence structure. Plus, it’s relatively expensive.

Meanwhile, Cudoo left us confused, bored, and unable to say pretty much anything. It felt to us like someone took a word list, turned it into a powerpoint presentation, and then put it up for sale. Complete beginners are asked to learn 14-word phrases by rote for pretty specific situations, such as “Could you ask him to call me back? My number is 291377” – and there is no breakdown of what the individual words mean.

Woman frowns at the Swahili course on her computer screen

Some Swahili courses are less effective than others.

Swahili Phrasebooks, Vocabulary Builders, and Word Games

If you’ve ever found yourself at a street stall ordering samosas yet again, all because you don’t know the names of the other types of food, you need a word-builder app. Your language course or textbook will teach you some vocabulary, but it’s rarely enough to get by when in East Africa. Try some of these options out:

Our Top Picks

Hoping to learn Swahili ahead of a vacation or business trip? uTalk could be a good option. This app will teach you words and phrases on 69 different themes, from going shopping and eating in a restaurant through to disaster relief volunteering and soccer games. We like the native audio, although if you’re a perfectionist, this might not be the app for you – it’s surprisingly hard to get 100% on some of the drills and exercises.

We like both Vocly (review) and Simply Learn (review), which teach you words or phrases respectively. These apps were made by the same developer who is behind Ling, the Duolingo-esque course we mentioned earlier. If you’re looking to learn Swahili and want to expand your vocabulary, you could try Vocly alongside a course. If you’re just going for a short trip, give Simply Learn a go.

uTalk language app is open on the Swahili word Kwaheri

Studying Swahili via uTalk, which teaches Swahili phrases through several languages including Lingala, Zulu, Wolof, Xhosa, English, and Spanish.

Personalized or Make-Your-Own Flashcard Sets

Whether you’re coming across new Swahili words in your independent reading or simply want help remembering the vocabulary in your textbook, sometimes the best flashcards are the ones you create yourself.

If you learn best by doing, you might find you prefer to make pen-and-paper flashcards. However, apps will allow you to add audio recordings to them, plus you won’t have to carry a large bundle of them in your pocket or purse.

We think Anki is one of the best language-learning apps for any learner and any language. It allows you to make your own flashcard decks or use one of the shared community-made ones. You’ve got plenty of choices for Swahili. One of our favorite things about Anki is how it adapts: words that you find more difficult will come up more frequently.

Brainscape is an Anki competitor. Although we think it has a more modern interface, there’s not much difference between the two apps.

If you’re reading online in Swahili, Readlang could make it a lot easier. You can use it to translate new words, and it will add the most common ones to flashcard decks for you. We like that the flashcard automatically contains the sentence in which you first discovered the word, helping you to understand the context and grammar.

Buying fruit at a Tanzanian market. Credit: David Cashbaugh

More Vocabulary Apps and Games

The freemium app Learn Swahili Free by Innovation Apps boasts of teaching you 9,000 words and phrases. We like how you can record your own voice and listen back to it. However, you can’t drill the new vocabulary within the app.

The Internet Polyglot website has over 40 themed Swahili-English word lists. Each entry has an audio recording, and there are several different games you can play to test your memory of the new vocabulary.

Daily Swahili from Belas Mobile will teach you a new word, phrase, and proverb every day, or you can go to Categories to view the entire list. You can also add words to Favourites or view your history. There’s no option for drilling new vocabulary, and the native audio sounded garbled when we tried it, so we’d use this alongside Anki and Forvo (review).

Beginner Swahili learners can use the Digital Dialects website to memorize colors, numbers, food, and calendar-based vocabulary. It has games that will test your memory, but take care not to mistake any of the ads with their big Play buttons for a game.

Birds-eye view of a table with food and flowers in Nairobi, Kenya

Lunch time in Nairobi. Credit: Nelly Jeroben

Fed up of apps that all look the same? In Swahili Bubble Bath, you have to match the Swahili word in the bubble to one of two English words. The game continues until you make five mistakes, and there are over 60 topics to choose from. We think it’s a fun way to memorize words, but unless you’ve already studied the vocabulary, we doubt you’ll learn many new words: it’s just too overwhelming. Use it as a supplementary resource alongside a course, textbook, or even another app.

You’ll also find several word lists on Kiswahili.net and PBS. Kiswahili.net also has some cultural notes.

LingoHut’s website contains an impressive 125 themed word lists for Swahili. That said, there aren’t many ways to drill the new words and phrases, and we have some doubts about the usefulness of some of the language.

Lingua Boosts’ Learn Conversational Swahili series bills itself as an audio course, but it actually just teaches you phrases. We like that everything’s taught in context, but some of the phrases are so context-specific that we wonder how useful they really are. Take “I lived in Paris when I was 10 years old” (lesson four). Without knowing how to say “when I was 10 years old,” it’s impossible to alter the phrase – meaning you can only use it if you really did happen to live in Paris when you were 10 years old.

Swahili Classes for Foreigners is a very old blog, and much of the content has been deleted. However, you can still find some posts with useful word lists.

Use These Apps With Caution – If at All

The Learn Swahili app by Language Corner contains word lists and audio recordings for a limited range of basic words. However, we found it too buggy to use. After the first ad popped up, all the audio recordings stopped working.

You’ll also find Swahili word lists on the websites Learn101, Polymath, ilanguages, ilovelanguages, and MyLanguages. However, we would be wary of all of these: generally speaking, we find them unstructured and at times confusing. Users of MyLanguages, in particular, have complained about lots of errors.

A covered market in Kenya with fruit and vegetable stalls

Shopping at the market in Lamu, Kenya. Credit: Photos By Beks

Online Swahili Grammar Guides and Exercises

Most courses and textbooks will teach you grammar, but sometimes, you need to spend a bit more time on verb conjugation or syntax.

Verbix will help you double check your verb conjugation, providing you know the infinitive, and sometimes it will even show you example sentences.

You’ll find lots of blog posts breaking down Swahili grammar on 2Seeds Swahili. There are also worksheets and answer sheets to help you practice the new material. We think the posts are well organized and build on each other. Try Introduction to Noun Classes to brush up on one of the most challenging grammatical aspects of Swahili.

You might come across LinguaShop.com, which advertises free PDF sheets with exercises sent to your email address. When we signed up, though, we didn’t receive them.

Swahili Pronunciation Guides

One of the great things about learning Swahili is that it uses phonetic spelling. Once you know the pronunciation rules, you’ll be able to say any word just by looking at it. This is pretty different to English, where “through” is pronounced like “threw” instead of “rough.”

Yet even so, you might find yourself wanting to drill pronunciation, especially as you begin your studies. KIKO has a pronunciation breakdown along with audio clips. There’s also a grammar guide, although we think it’s too superficial to really be useful.

You could also try Vocabulearn’s 4-disc Swahili/English Level 1 course (Amazon, Spotify). Each track introduces you to a long list of Swahili words and phrases. We don’t feel that you’ll learn Swahili from it, as there are no grammar explanations, exercises, or drills. However, since each word is said slowly and clearly, you could use it for pronunciation practice.

Want to look up the pronunciation of a specific word? We’re huge fans of Forvo. It has community-uploaded voice recordings for millions of words.

Woman with earphones talks in Swahili while walking down the street

Pronunciation practice on the go.

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.

Learning Swahili via YouTube

If you’re more of an audiovisual learner, or simply looking for something with native-speaker audio to supplement a textbook, then you might like YouTube videos. They tend to be lower quality than courses, apps, and textbooks – but they are, of course, free. Here are some channels and playlists to start you off:

Zero to Hero isn’t a YouTube channel but a website. However, it has embedded Swahili-language YouTube videos with Closed Captioning and added their transcript to the side of the videos. In their words, it’s like FluentU but free and for a wider range of languages (and, we have to add, without the quizzes). FluentU only has content in nine languages, none of which are Swahili.

We’ve already mentioned SwahiliPod101 under Swahili language courses. They also have a YouTube channel with playlists such as Swahili in 3 Minutes, Swahili Reading Practice for Beginners, and Swahili Listening Practice.

Learn Swahili Easily has a fair number of vocabulary-based lessons for beginners. The instruction is clear, and most videos are around one to two minutes long.

Easy Swahili will teach you basic Swahili phrases. They don’t have many videos, but each one is short and sweet and with clear audio. They also include some Swahili slang. Intermediate Swahili learners might also like this Swahili-language interview about Valentine’s Day in Kenya. In our opinion, the biggest benefit of these videos, whether beginner or intermediate, is the variety of native Swahili speakers that you’ll get to listen to.

Swahili101 has plenty of Swahili videos for you to watch. We like the cultural information that the host, KulManSam, includes.

For something more technical, and with plenty of grammar-based instruction, try Swahili Dar Language School’s channel. They have videos for beginner- and intermediate-level learners alike. Make yourself a cup of coffee and get comfy before pressing play: their videos range from 12 to 50 minutes in length.

Swahili Centre has a range of beginner-level video lessons. Their video Swahili Sentence Construction could be particularly useful if you’re struggling with grammar.

Swahili Stadia has a very small number of videos targeted at intermediate-level learners.

Education World has turned a 300-phrase vocabulary list into an hour-long YouTube video. We’re not sure it’s the most effective or engaging video, so it’s probably best to only watch small amounts at a time.

Swahili AniBooks by BookBox is designed to help children learn Swahili through subtitled YouTube videos. They can be just as useful for adults as kids, though.

Swahili Fairy Tales also has Swahili-language stories with subtitles.

South Asian couple watch Swahili YouTube videos on a tablet.

Practice with a partner can be even more effective.

Swahili Podcasts

With podcasts, you can simultaneously challenge your Swahili listening skills while learning more about the topics that interest you. Plus, you can do it while commuting, cooking, and more.

Looking for something that will teach you Swahili? The newly launched Swahili with Mariana has just a few episodes at the time of publication, but hopefully we’ll see more published.

In Kenyan Plug, Kenyan American Shiro speaks Swahili imperfectly but, as she says, passionately. The topics range from politics to culture.

Africa & Beyond is in both English and Swahili. At 7–35 minutes per episode, it’s easy to find one short or long enough for your liking.

For Swahili-speaking Australians, SBS Swahili explores news and politics and is updated multiple times a week. Meanwhile, if you’re in Japan, NHK World Kiswahili is updated daily.

Young man smiles while listening to a Swahili-language podcast in the office.

Choose a podcast that will make you laugh or think.

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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