Language in Tanzania & Zanzibar (Plus Tourists’ Swahili Guide)

Language in Tanzania - Dhows in Zanzibar

You Can Venture out into the Ocean in One of These Dhows in Zanzibar – Tanzania

While there are more than one hundred living languages spoken in Tanzania, Swahili is the main language.

The huge number of languages is due to the many tribes (and subtribes) that reside within the borders of the country. Tribally, Tanzania is so diverse that even people from the same region often find it hard to understand each another if they come from different ethnic groups.

This necessitates the use of common languages. Swahili and English serve as the nation’s official languages.

If you want help with the local language while in Tanzania, grab this awesome downloadable Swahili guide.

English and Swahili in Tanzania

Even though English is classified as an official language in Tanzania, it is rare to find people speaking English in the streets. Not many people are fluent in the language.

You can find English being spoken in secondary schools and institutions of higher learning, at tourist spots and lodges or offices but rarely as a means of casual communication among the local population.

Swahili is the language of instruction in primary schools. English is taught in primary schools only as a foreign language. The roles are switched in secondary schools where English is used as a language of instruction. There are plans however to replace English and use Swahili as the sole language of instruction right from grade one to higher institutions of learning.

Speaking Tanzania’s Most Popular Language

If you a tourist in Tanzania, being able to communicate with the locals in their own local language will make for a more rewarding and thrilling travel experience. Even the ability to say hello to a local in Swahili will definitely bring more smiles your way than using popular English greetings will.

Not only will the locals appreciate that you’ve put some effort into learning a few phrases in their language, but you will also find it easier to navigate your way through the streets.

There are several reasons why you should learn a few Swahili phrases as you go on your Tanzania safari. Here are four reasons why I think you should definitely master a few phrases.

Reasons to Know a Few Words and Phrases in the Local Language

1. You Will Get Bigger Smiles

Saying hello in the local language will definitely elicit a better response from the locals than greeting them in a foreign language or using hand gestures. Add to the fact that they will appreciate your putting in the effort to learn and appreciate their language and the moments will be magical.

Its totally worth it. There are a few Swahili phrases towards the end of this post to help you out.

2. The Kids Will Love You

tanzanian kid

Kids are amazing. They got a certain kind of energy that can lighten up any room no matter the mood. When I travel to any destination, I like to find some time to engage in an activity that will let me interact with some of the local kids even if its volunteering.

Since the only language Tanzanian kids understand well besides their own ethnic language is Swahili, knowing a few Swahili phrases will make the interactions worthwhile.

3. You Can Ask Your Way Back to the Hotel

Imagine you are lost in Stone Town Zanzibar with all its winding narrow streets and you can’t find someone who speaks English to ask directions from. Not the best experience. Well, this is a hypothetical situation. Finding someone who speaks English is not always that hard and just saying the name of the hotel will always get you some help. So don’t worry. But you get the idea.

A little Swahili will make asking for directions easier.

And you will be able to order biriani at the corner restaurant easily.

4. You Will Get a Better Price on that Beautiful Souvenir

giraffe - zanzibar language

When shopping in open air markets as a tourist, prices quoted for you will often be higher than the prices for locals. This means that you may want to bargain for a better price. But how do you bargain when the English “bargaining vocabulary” you know is too complex for the seller to understand?

Swahili shopping phrases provided in the phrases section below will be a life savior.

Useful Swahili Words and Phrases for Tourists

The pronunciation of the words is as they are written and the stress is on the second last syllable. For instance, “karibu” becomes kaREEboo and “kijiko” becomes keeJEEko

Jambo? (how are you?) – Sijambo (I am fine)
Habari? (how are you?) – Nzuri (fine).

You can use either of the two greetings. They have almost the same meaning.

Excuse me – Samahani
Please – Tafadhali
Welcome – Karibu
Fine – Nzuri
Thank you – Asante
Thank you very much – Asante sana
OK – Sawa
Yes – Ndio
No – Hapana
Don’t worry – Usiogope

My name is YYY – Jina langu ni YYY
I have a question – Nina swali

I am lost – Nimepotea njia
Where is the bank? – benki iko wapi?
Where is YYY? – YYY iko wapi?
Taxi (cab) – teksi
I am looking for a cab – Natafuta teksi

Spoon – Kijiko
Fork -Uma
Menu – Menyu
I am vegeterian – Sili Nyama
It is very sweet – Ni tamu sana
Cold drink – Kinywaji baridi
I would like to order YYY – Ningependa kuagiza YYY

How much? – Pesa ngapi?
Price – bei
I like it – Ninaipenda
I will buy it – Nitainunua
It is expensive – Ni bei ghali
Please give me a discount – tafadahali punguza bei
Please lower the price further – tafadhali punguza bei tena

For a more comprehensive article on English – Swahili translation of Swahili words and phrases go here.

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