With a population of almost 50 million people, Kenya, officially called the Republic of Kenya, is an eastern African country that’s a cultural and geographic melange. Whether you’re exploring the stretches of the country’s savannah on a world-famous safari or living it up in Nairobi, the country’s bustling capital, you’re bound to find all types of experiences and people. As you’re getting to know Kenya and its citizens either by reading about the country or even by visiting it, it’s only natural to ask yourself about the languages spoken in Kenya. And there are a few worth mentioning!
We break down the linguistic makeup of one of Africa’s most beautiful, multiethnic and well-known countries. Keep reading to learn more about the languages spoken in Kenya.
A Look At the Languages Spoken In Kenya
The country’s two official languages — and the ones you’ll hear and see used most frequently — are English and Swahili, which is considered the lingua franca of southeastern Africa for its widespread usage and ubiquity in the areas of trade, commerce, communications and education. There are assumed to be 17 million people who speak Swahili at some level of proficiency in the country today.
Swahili, also known as Kiswahili to many of its speakers, is a Bantu language, meaning it is a member of the Niger-Congo language family (one of the six major language groups, or phyla, found on the continent). Technically, the name is an umbrella term for the many different varieties of Swahili that are mostly mutually intelligible with one another. The kiMvita dialect is the one you’ll likely find in Kenya, but others are sprinkled throughout, too.
English arrived in Kenya during the later years of the era of colonialism, as European powers carved up the African continent and claimed territories as their own. Kenya was under British rule starting in the late 1800s through the 1960s, when Kenya became a sovereign state. The British managed to leave a lasting legacy through their language; today, it’s estimated that about 2.7 million people speak English to some degree.
What Are The Other Languages In Kenya?
Though English and Swahili are the principal tongues you’ll find spoken throughout Kenya, that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones. Besides Swahili, there are other indigenous African languages spoken more regionally that have more speakers than English has! In fact, Ethnologue estimates that there are roughly 70 languages spoken in the country.
Some of the many Niger-Congo tongues you can find in Kenya include Gikuyu, with about 6.6 million speakers, and Oluluyia, which has about 5.2 million. There are also tonal languages of the Nilo-Saharan language group, including Dholuo, with about 4 million speakers, and Kalenjin, with almost 5 million.
In the Afroasiatic language family, there’s Somali, which has more than 2 million speakers, many of whose ancestors came from Somalia before or during the colonial period. You can find about 15,000 people, too, speaking Arabic, many of whom come from North Africa. (Arabic actually had a major influence on the Swahili language because of contact through trade, starting from about 1500 CE onward; many of the Swahili-speaking people were historically Muslim.) There are roughly 6,000 people who speak Hindi within the country’s borders as well.