Suggestions for Teaching English to Native Swahili Speakers.

Shaaban Fundi,

Last week I conducted several interviews with Swahili speaking students at a local community college in Atlanta. Amongst the interviewees: three were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one from the United Republic of Tanzania and four were from the republic of Burundi. The eight students spoke Swahili with different dialects.

By definition, Swahili or Kiswahili is a “Bantu language spoken by various ethnic groups inhabiting a large Indian Ocean Coastal stretch from Mozambique to Somalia”. The countries include: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Comoro, Burundi, Malawi, Zambia, and Congo DRC.

I learned from the interviews that Standard Swahili has 5 vowels phonemes. The vowels are: a, e, I, o, u. And that the vowels are never reduced, regardless of stress. The vowels are pronounced as follows:

“a” is pronounced like the “a” in pasta
‘e’ is pronounced like the “e” in bed
‘i’ is pronounced like the “i” in ski
‘o’ is pronounced like the “o” in “or”
‘u’ is pronounced like the “oo” in “bassoon”.”

I also learned that like in numerous Bantu languages, Swahili arranges nouns into a number of classes. The ancestral system had 22 classes. Counting singular and plural as distinct according to the Meinhof System. Most Bantu languages share at least ten of these noun classes. Swahili employs sixteen nouns classes: six classes usually indicate singular nouns, five classes usually indicate plural nouns, one class for abstract nouns, one class for verbal infinitives used as nouns, and three classes to indicate location.

Some examples of the nouns classes are presented below:
“class semantics prefix singular translation plural translation
1, 2 persons m-/mu-, wa- mtu person watu persons
3, 4 trees, natural forces m-/mu-, mi- mti tree miti trees”

As seen above, Swahili is a very complex language and differs significantly from the English language. The vowels are pronounced the way they are written while in the English language the vowels carry different sounds from the written expression. This difference in particular causes a huge challenge to students who are learning English as a second language from the Swahili speaking cultures. Students from Swahili speaking countries struggle with intonation and word sound relationships in English because this is a very different system from that of Swahili or Kiswahili.

Implication in the classroom instruction

It is very important for educators to understand the linguistic similarities and differences between Swahili and English to have an opportunity to help students like the ones I interviewed. In addition, Swahili has a different system for singular and plural to that used in the English language. The addition of vowels to words does not exist in the Swahili language. Thus, making it harder for Swahili speakers to learn the English language.

Opportunity in classroom instruction:

It would be helpful to educators who teach content specific course to understand the linguistic similarities and differences between Swahili and English. This understanding will help them to anticipate when and where Swahili speaking students will have challenges learning the English language. This understanding will provides educators with an opportunity to help students for Swahili speaking nations to be engaged in their own learning and also in using the new language for other content specific courses.

Educators need to develop lessons that will focus more in helping students new to the English language understand the differences and similarities between the two languages and use the opportunity to highlight how to overcome those differences. For example, educators can start by teaching the students the English alphabet, vowels and word sounds. This will help the students to understand where the two languages are similar and where they differ.

After students have mastered word sounds, educators can go further into reading, writing and comprehension of the English language. The step by step instruction will help many ESOL students to become fluent English speakers and writers and in turn this will have a significant impact on how the ESOL students excel in the content classrooms.

1.Prins, A.H.J. 1961. “The Swahili-Speaking Peoples of Zanzibar and the East African Coast (Arabs, Shirazi and Swahili)”. Ethnographic Survey of Africa, edited by Daryll Forde. London: International African Institute.
2.Prins, A.H.J. 1970. A Swahili Nautical Dictionary. Preliminary Studies in Swahili Lexicon – 1. Dar es Salaam.
3.Whiteley, Wilfred. 1969. Swahili: the rise of a national language. London: Methuen. Series: Studies in African History.
4.Brock-Utne, Birgit (2001). “Education for all — in whose language?” Oxford Review of Education 27 (1): 115–134.


4 thoughts on “Suggestions for Teaching English to Native Swahili Speakers.

  1. Pingback: Chapter 1. Section B. Recognizing Primary Language Differences | Berea College ESL Tutors

  2. Adriana Cuevas

    learning different languages is a really good and experimental thing to do knowing different languages makes you more valuable than others that only speak one


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