Tanzania Swahili Language Guide


What You Should Know About Language in Tanzania

Tanzania Local Travel Expert

Swahili Language 

Swahili language (correctly known as Kiswahili) is the official language and is taught in schools throughout Tanzania, but there are many other major tribal languages which include Chagga, Meru, Maasai, Sukuma, Hehe, Zaramo any many other minor tribal languages. Most urban Tanzania and even tribal people involved in the tourist industry speak English so you shouldn’t experience too many problems making yourself understood. French, Spanish and German are also spoken by many Tanzanian but usually only among those associated with the tourist trade on the coast.

It’s extremely useful, however, to have a working knowledge of Swahili, especially outside of urban areas and in remote parts of the country since this will open doors and enable you to communicate with people who don’t speak English. It’s also the most common language which speakers of different tribal languages use to communicate with each other. Even tribespeople who haven’t been to school will usually be able to speak some Swahili. If you’re planning on visiting many parts of Tanzania then you’ll find it extremely useful as it’s the official language (though English is still used extensively).

Unless you can speak reasonable Swahili, you probably won’t realise it’s being spoken since it does sound quite similar to Swahili. One of the keys to knowing that it’s being spoken is in the initial greeting between friends. The greeting will be, ‘Mambo!’ The response to this can be, ‘Poa’ (pronounced almost like ‘poor’). There is then an option to continue in Swahili or any other mutually intelligible language.

Swahili Pronunciation

Swahili vowels are pronounced as follows:

a​  –  as the ‘a’ in ‘father’

e  –  as the ‘e’ in ‘better’

i   –  ​as the ‘ee’ sound in ‘bee’

o  – ​as the ‘a’ in ‘law’

u  – ​as the ’00’ in ‘too’

Double vowels, or any two vowels together, are pronounced as two separate syllables. Thus saa (time/hour) is pronounced ‘sa-a’, and yai (egg) is pronounced ‘ya-i’. There are no diphthongs as in English.

* There is also a respectful greeting used for elders: shikamoo. The reply is marahaba.


General Rules

Swahili relies heavily on prefixes; adjectives change prefix according to the number and class of the noun. Thus mzuri, wazuri, vizuri and kizuri are different forms of the word good

Verbs use a pronoun prefix:
I – ni

You – u

He/she – a

We  – tu

You – m

and a tense prefix:
present – na​

past​ –  li

future  – ​ta

infinitive –  ku

We are going to Moshi – Tuna kwenda Moshi.
Shall I take a picture? –  Nipige picha?

Juma spoke much – Juma aliongea sana.


Some Useful Words & Phrases:

Hello –  Mambo

Welcome – Karibu

How are you? – Habari Yako

I’m fine thanks – Nzuri, Ahsante

Goodbye – Kwaheri

Yes – Ndio

No – Hapana

Thank You – Ahsante

Where  – Wapi?

Money  –  pesa

Today  –  leo

Tomorrow  – kesho

Gues thouse  – ​nyumba ya wageni

Toilet  –  choo

Eat  –  kula

Sleep  – lala

Want  – taka

Come from  – Kutoka

There is  –  kuna

There isn’t  – hakuna

White people  – wazungu

What’s your name? –  Unaitwa nani ?

My Name is  –  Ninaitwa

How was the journey? – Habari ya safari?

How much/how many?  – Shilingi Ngapi? Ngapi


Swahili (Kiswahili) is the official language but English remains widely spoken and is the principal language of commerce. There are also many local African languages, reflecting the tribal diversity of the country, Outside the cities and towns, far fewer local people speak English.


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