June 23, 2022
While Swahili is a first language for some people, the majority of its speakers speak it as a second language. Yet it is a lingua franca connecting hundreds of millions of people all over East Africa and beyond. After learning that it is a lingua franca, many wonder: “Why is Swahili spoken as a second language?” This article explores the unique position of Swahili as a widely spoken language that serves as a second language for most Swahili speakers
The most obvious answer to the question “Why is Swahili spoken as a second language?” may be the fact that most East Africans have a first language other than Swahili. Apart from the Swahili people who are found on the east coast of Africa in Kenya and Tanzania, all other Kenyans, Tanzanians, and East Africans, in general, are born to a language other than Swahili.
Kikuyu, Kimeru, Kimaasai, Dholuo, Kikamba, and Kitaita to name just a few, are some of the languages Kenyans for instance, are born into. Similarly, Tanzanians are raised with languages such as Makonde, Luguru, Kimaasai, Kisambaa, and Kichaga. If you pose the question, “why is Swahili spoken as a second language?” to these people who speak Swahili their response will therefore be because they learned or acquired Swahili after they had already learned a different native language – their own native language/mother tongue.
But virtually all East Africans have Swahili as a second language. It is next to impossible to meet a Kenyan or Tanzanian who is monolingual. Though they all speak a different first language, they uniformly have Swahili as a second language.
So, why is Swahili spoken as a second language so uniformly in East Africa? In Western countries, the unifier is in the first language – in the US and the UK for instance, English is spoken as a first language and it is spoken by the majority of the citizens.
So it is for German in Germany, Spanish in Spain, French in France, and Italian in Italy to name a few. But for East Africans, the unifier is not in the first language but in the second one. One may therefore wonder: Why is Swahili spoken as a second language in East Africa with such uniformity.
In this context, the answer lies in the fact that Swahili is both a national language and an official language in both Kenya and Tanzania. As the national and official language, Swahili plays a key role in governance, economy, and the general societies of Kenya and Tanzania, two very influential nations not only in East Africa but the rest of Africa as well.
Tanzania goes a step further to have Swahili as the sole language of instruction at all levels of education. It becomes imperative, therefore, for residents in the region to learn Swahili even after acquiring a different first language.
The fact that East Africa is a melting pot of varied languages gives one another answer to the question: “Why is Swahili spoken as a second language?” People in the region need to connect for business and basic coexistence purposes. When language proves a stumbling block, what better alternative are they to turn to than their national language – one that they also happen to mandatorily learn in school and one that has so much in common with many of their native tongues?
Kimathi got his education degree to teach Swahili at the University of Nairobi and taught Swahili language and literature at a high school there for three years before coming to the US for graduate studies. He has worked as a translator and editor for the last few years as well as teaching Swahili language and African cultural studies classes at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.