Kenya is a multilingual country. The Bantu Swahili language and English, the latter being inherited from colonial rule (see British Kenya), are widely spoken as lingua franca. They serve as the two official working languages. Including second-language speakers, there are more speakers of Swahili than English in Kenya
According to Ethnologue, there are a total of 68 languages spoken in Kenya. This variety is a reflection of the country’s diverse population that includes most major ethnoracial and linguistic groups found in Africa (see Languages of Africa).
Most languages spoken locally belong to two broad language families: Niger-Congo (Bantu branch) and Nilo-Saharan (Nilotic branch), spoken by the country’s Bantu and Nilotic populations, respectively. The Cushitic and Arab ethnic minorities speak languages belonging to the separate Afroasiatic family, with the Hindustani and British residents speaking languages from the Indo-European family.
Kenya’s various ethnic groups typically speak their mother tongues within their own communities. The two official languages, English and Swahili, are used in varying degrees of fluency for communication with other populations. English is widely spoken in commerce, schooling and government. Peri-urban and rural dwellers are less multilingual, with many in rural areas speaking only their native languages.
English was inherited from Kenya’s British colonial past. English is the language of choice in business, academics and social set-ups in Kenya.
Swahili (also called Kiswahili) is the national language of Kenya. It is a unifying African language spoken by nearly 100 percent of the Kenyan population. Even illiterate Kenyans know some basic Swahili. The purest form of Kiswahili is spoken along the coast where native Swahili people live. Swahili is one of the most common African languages and it is spoken in many countries other than Kenya, such as Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda and Zaire.
Indigenous Languages in Kenya
Kenya’s ethnic languages are spoken mostly in rural settings and in homes where all members belong to the same ethnic group. The most dominant of the indigenous languages are Kikuyu, Dholuo and Luhya.
Kikuyu is the language of the Kikuyu people, Kenya’s largest ethnic group. It is closely related to the Embu, Mbeere, and Meru languages spoken by neighboring communities in the Mount Kenya region.
The Kikuyu language is widely spoken in Kenyan towns, even by members of other ethnic groups. This is particularly true in business situations. Since Kikuyu people run the majority of Kenya’s businesses, it is common to find people conducting business in the Kikuyu language. As a result, other business people have had to adapt and learn Kikuyu as a matter of necessity.
The Luhya language is not a single language but rather, it is a collection of mutually understood dialects spoken by the Luhya people of Western Kenya. The Luhya are the second largest ethnic group following the Kikuyu. The two biggest Luhya sub-tribes are the Maragoli and the Bukusu.
Dholuo is the language of the Luo people, the third most populous ethnic group. The language is so melodious that other Kenyans find it fascinating to listen to.
Sheng is a commonly spoken slang in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. It is a mixture of Swahili and English, with a sprinkling of other indigenous languages. In fact, Sheng is more than just slang – it’s a lifestyle, especially among the urban youth who, today, are more fluent in Sheng than in the purer forms of Kiswahili.
Here is some basic Swahili to help you make the most of your Kenya’s everyday communicating words.
|Good morning||Habari ya asubuhi|
|Good afternoon||Habari ya mchana|
|Good evening||Habari ya jioni|
|Good night||Usiku mwema|
|I love you||Nakupenda|
|Can I please have…||Tafadhali nipatie…|
|You are welcome||Karibu|
|No problem!||Hakuna matata!|
|My name is…||Ninaitwa / Jina langu ni…|
|What is your name?||Unaitwa nani?|
|Where are you from?||Unatoka wapi?|
|I come from…||Ninatoka…|
Other popular English to Swahili Expressions
|How much money?||Shillingi ngapi?|
|Safe journey||Safari njema|
|Do you speak English?||Unajua kizungu?|
|Good / Fine||Sawa / Sawasawa|
SIL Ethnologue (2009) reports the largest communities of native speakers in Kenya as follows:
Languages spoken by the country’s ethnic minorities include:
- ^ “The Constitution of Kenya” (PDF). Kenya Law Reports. Retrieved 23 April 2016.
- ^ 
- ^ Ethnologue – Languages of Kenya
- ^ Proquest Info & Learning (COR) (2009). Culturegrams: World Edition. Proquest/Csa Journal Div. p. 98. ISBN 0977809161.
- ^ E. K. Brown, R. E. Asher, J. M. Y. Simpson (2006). Encyclopedia of language & linguistics, Volume 1, Edition 2. Elsevier. p. 181. ISBN 0080442994