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What Language Is Spoken In Tanzania?

If you’re going to Tanzania, you might be worried about whether your English will see you through or if you need to learn some Swahili to make your travels easier so you can get the most out of your trip. 

But does Tanzania have an exclusive language, and is it used in all or most parts of the country, as you might be looking to veer away from the tourist areas?

What Language Is Spoken In Tanzania?

And if so, is there a way to find access to some common Swahili words that can show you have respect for the language and people without causing any confusion? 

In this article, we look at the different languages spoken in Tanzania and where the most spoken language, Swahili, gets its roots from. Read on to find out how you can have a meaningful and exciting vacation.

What Is The Most Spoken Language In Tanzania?

In general, there are over 100 different languages spoken, but we can look at the most spoken and widely used language, which is Swahili, which is a language that the whole population uses or may use next to other tribal languages. 

English is used in areas as well but has been utilized as a second or third language and is taught in schools, but the level isn’t the best, so people might be able to read the language but might have a harder time understanding it. 

This is because some people have had to learn it in order to progress in some forms of higher education, and it can be heard in higher courts and used by diplomats in scenarios like building relations or trade policies.

Origins Of Swahili

You might be wondering where this widely spoken language comes from, but it is generally accepted that the language developed as a result of trade between the coast people of East Africa and the Arabs. 

This use has been referred to as far back as the end of the 1st century AD and is usually referred to as a Bantu language which fits into the 12 types that include Rundi, Shona, Xhosa, and Zulu, to name a few. 

The language picked up in usage around the 19th century and was used by European colonists, and from here, this laid the foundation for its adoption as the national language of independent Tanzania. 

The language itself is even more interesting when you learn that it has a large vocabulary of root words that are traceable to Bantu stock and is greatly influenced by the Arabic language, and a good example of this is the language name Swahili itself. 

Are There Any Sub Languages?

Now we’ve given you an overview of the language used, it’s time to look at some lesser-known languages spoken in Tanzania that might be used in more spread-out communities and peoples, as these languages are just as important to the cultural landscape as any other.

What Language Is Spoken In Tanzania

Below we outline some of the languages spoken in Tanzania and where you will likely see them used. 

  • Kisankasa – This language is a good example of how diverse and rich the country’s linguistics is, as this one is a Bantu language that is still in wide use. The language is spoken by about half of the Kisi people who are from the Njombe region. 
  • Pare – This Bantu language group is spoken by the Pare people in the northeast of Tanzania and is also known as Chasu, Athu, and Chathu. It is spoken by about 500,000 people, so it’s more widely used than other dialects and some indigenous languages.
  • Bemba – This language is also used in the democratic republic of the congo and Zambia and is a common or bridge language used by most of the country’s indigenous people. This language is spoken in the southern part of Tanzania and is also known as Chibemba, Cibemba, and Ichibemba, just to name a few variations. 
  • Hehe – This language has a complex tense-aspect-mood system that is native to the Iringa region, which is to the south of the great Ruaha river. This language is spoken by fewer than 200,000 people and has lost some of its distinct features over the last 150 years or so. 

Languages That Have Lost Usage

With so many languages and sub-languages being used, it’s not surprising to note that some forms of the Bantu language are either sparsely used or a Bantu sub-language may be used in different areas more commonly, like Tanzania’s neighbor, Kenya, for instance. 

One of these languages in Tanzania is Asa ,which was mostly spoken by the Asa people in the northern region of Tanzania. However, it isn’t spoken by anyone natively at present.

Some forms of words might still have some meaning to specific communities, but some are a distant memory of an older generation. 

As there are known to be 112 native languages in Tanzania, it can be difficult to track each one. Some of these range from the thousands to the millions in terms of active users, and some of these are as distinct as languages like English or German. 

As easy as some are to identify, political decisions have a big role to play in what languages they want to promote and integrate within their communities.

Some have argued that using English as the vernacular form in education isn’t that effective as Kiswahili is spoken in most aspects of life outside of education, making it difficult to justify its learning and use in this way.

Other Languages In Tanzania Of Note

We’ve used this section to outline any languages that don’t originate from Tanzania, but some communities speak languages such as French, German, Portuguese, Gujarati, Arabic, and Hindustani. Still, there are many more sub-genres that are worth mentioning. 

There are also around 100 distinct ethnic groups and tribes in Tanzania that speak their own language, and some are variations of the Bantu language. You can definitely say that the country is very diverse in this regard. 

Interestingly, French is largely spoken in Tanzania alongside Swahili and English, as it has recently become part of the school curriculum. It’s estimated that 1.5 million people in Tanzania are proficient speakers.

As the country is known as multilingual, it can be difficult to identify a language that has prominence. As a rule of thumb, though, the Swahili and English languages are often known as working languages. 

If we look at the tourism industry, for example, we can see that tour guides do use English and, in some cases, make the effort to accommodate other languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, German, and even Japanese.

But if you want an authentic Tanzanian experience, you might want to adopt some Swahili.

Some Swahili Words To Help You Out

What Language Is Spoken In Tanzania

If you’re planning on going on a safari or about to undertake some volunteer work in Tanzania, learning some Swahili basics can help you bridge the gap between cultures and make your experience much easier.

You might even find that the locals are more helpful to you if you’re able to communicate your queries or feelings in case you’re looking for recommendations or travel advice.

There are many ways to greet people in this language, and you can expect different answers that might seem unusual but might only make sense if you have a full grasp of the language and works differently from the many Bantu languages you may encounter.

For Greetings

  • Hello – It can be Mambo, which you can respond by saying poa, for Habari, you can say Nzuri, and for people older than yourself, you can use Shikamoo, which you can respond with Marhaba.
  • Goodbye – Kwaheri, or kwa herini, if referring to more than one person.
  • How are you? – Habari gani
  • Nice to meet you – Nafurahi kukuona or Ninafuraha kukutana na wewe
  • See you later – Baadaye, Kwa heri for a goodbye over a longer period of time, or Kesho if it’s in the evening and you won’t see them until the next day.

For Civilities Or Use In Conversation

  • Yes – Ndiyo
  • No – Hapana
  • All is good, or I am well – Poa, as a response to Mambo, Nzuri as a response to Habari, or Marhaba, if the respondent is an older person.
  • Thank you – Asante
  • Please – Tafadhali or naomba if you want to request something politely
  • Excuse me – Samahani, or pole, which also means sorry and shows empathy
  • Can you help me? – Tafadhali or naomba msaada
  • How do you say (insert word) in Swahili? – Unasemaje (insert word) Kwa Kiswahili

For Navigation

  • Where is the (insert place)? – (insert place) iko wapi?
  • Bus station – Stesheni ya basi, or Kituo cha mabasi
  • Bus stop – Stendi (ya basi)
  • Train Station – Kituo cha treni
  • Bank – Benki
  • Market – Soko
  • Police station – Kituo cha polisi

For Health And Emergency

  • I need a doctor – nahitaji daktari
  • I’m sick/ill – Mimi ni mgonjwa
  • Where can I find a (insert service)? – (insert service) iko wapi?
  • Doctor – Daktari
  • Hospital – Hospitali
  • Medical center – kituo cha matibabu
  • It hurts here – Inauma hapa, or naumwa hapa

Some Tips To Make Your Trip Easier

There might be an instance where you might need directions, or you need a specific service that the lists above might not cover, and you’ll find that making the effort to learn certain words and phrases will be appreciated by the locals. 

But how can you make it so that your travels are made more simple, and you want a cultural immersion that goes beyond the tourist spots? Below are a few tips you can follow to make your experience easier for you.

Learn Some Swahili 

This could be said about other languages, but this is especially true for Swahili because most words are pronounced as they are written, as you’ll discover through online dictionaries that also provide a pronunciation guide.

You can also find handy applications on your phone that can translate and give you a dictionary of these words, or you could invest in a phrase book that you can conveniently place in your pocket or belongings. 

Additionally, you can listen to broadcasts that use this language before you set off to get a good idea of the language and current affairs to get a better understanding of the country, which makes immersion much easier.

Check out our examples of useful Swahili words and expressions we mentioned above – these might come in handy during your trip!

Tour Guides Can Help You Out

If you decide to go with a package holiday that involves tours, you will likely have a dedicated guide who has a great knowledge of the area and can give you recommendations on places to see in your free time. 

They might be able to point you to a tourist information center that can take your immersion even further by providing details about language school courses that can give you an in-depth understanding of the culture and customs of the people. 

If you find you have any specific questions or inquiries about the country, it’s always a good idea to visit the embassy that represents your country. 

Be Aware Of Customs And Traditions

You might find in your travels around Tanzania that the culture is very different from your own. If you acknowledge and celebrate these traditions that stem from a rich and age-old culture, you can truly immerse yourself and experience the beauty of this country. 

Some typical customs in the country involve greeting people and eating food with your right hand, asking permission before you take any pictures of the people, and respecting older people’s views and beliefs.

Of course, many of these are considered good etiquette, and it would be wise to respect other people and their traditions, as this acknowledgement is important.  

Conclusion

Now you have some idea of what languages are spoken in Tanzania, there is a good chance that if you understand some of these basic terms, navigating this beautiful country should be less stressful while on your trip.

Immersion is something that doesn’t necessarily happen with time, but with some effort on your part, you can make it more insightful and enjoyable.

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