How Many People Speak Swahili, And Where Is It Spoken?

How much do you know about the lingua franca of southeastern Africa?
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How Many People Speak Swahili, And Where Is It Spoken?

Ever wondered how many people speak Swahili? You might not know a lot of people in your community who speak the language, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t scores of speakers out there. The language is spoken by millions and is prevalent throughout much of Africa, as well as some other parts of the world. Shedding light on this language’s role in the linguistic landscape of the African continent reveals a rich history of the people who live there and the tongues they speak.

Read on to find out how many people speak Swahili around the world and where.

What Is Swahili?

Swahili, also widely known as Kiswahili to its many speakers, is a member of the Bantu language family, stemming from the Niger-Congo branch of languages. It’s technically a macrolanguage, meaning that there are different variations of Swahili that are related closely enough that they’re mutually intelligible.

Owing much to trade with Arab countries, Swahili has been heavy influenced by Arabic (many of the Swahili people were historically Muslim). It’s borrowed a lot of lexical items from the Arab tongue, starting especially from 1500 CE onward. Though Swahili is mostly written with the Roman alphabet today, it was originally written in Arabic script. In fact, the name Swahili comes from the Arabic word meaning “of the coast.”

Swahili made our list (albeit in the last spot) of easiest languages for English speakers to learn because of its straightforward grammar and logical spelling and pronunciation patterns. Plus, it borrows a notable amount of words from English like penseli (“pencil”), televisheni (“television”) and picha (“picture”).

How Many People Speak Swahili?

There are about 16 million people throughout the world who speak a dialect of Swahili as a native language. As a second language, it has about 82 million speakers. The language is considered to be the lingua franca of the African Great Lakes region and other parts of eastern and southeastern Africa. It’s been adopted by speakers of many different languages in Africa as a more universal means of communication, typically for commerce and trade.

Where In The World Is Swahili Spoken?

Most native speakers of Swahili — about 15 million — are concentrated in Tanzania, where the tongue is a national language. But Tanzania makes up less than half of all Swahili speakers, who have big populations in three other countries where it’s also a national language: Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya (where it was made a mandatory subject in all schools in the 1980s). There are also sizable populations in Mozambique, Somalia and the Comoros Islands, as well as small pockets of speakers in Rwanda, Burundi, Northern Zambia and Malawi.

The dialects of Swahili cover a fairly broad swath of eastern and central Africa. The kiUnguja dialect, off of which standard Swahili is based, is found in Zanzibar and parts of mainland Tanzania; the kiMvita dialect is spoken in Mombasa and parts of Kenya; and kiAmu is found on the island of Lamu and along the continent’s eastern coast.

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David Doochin
David is a content producer for Babbel USA, where he writes for Babbel Magazine and oversees Babbel's presence on Quora. He’s a native of Nashville and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied linguistics and history. Before Babbel he worked at Quizlet and Atlas Obscura. A geek for grammar and an editorial enthusiast, he speaks Spanish (and dabbles in German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Italian). When he’s not curating his Instagram meme collection, you can find him spending too much money on food and exploring new cities around the world.
David is a content producer for Babbel USA, where he writes for Babbel Magazine and oversees Babbel's presence on Quora. He’s a native of Nashville and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied linguistics and history. Before Babbel he worked at Quizlet and Atlas Obscura. A geek for grammar and an editorial enthusiast, he speaks Spanish (and dabbles in German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Italian). When he’s not curating his Instagram meme collection, you can find him spending too much money on food and exploring new cities around the world.
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