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A guide to Languages in Kenya


Kenya is an East African country with coastline along the Indian Ocean, and a population of 48 million people. 

There are more than 45 tribes in Kenya that fall under three language groups; Bantus, Nilotes (river/lake, highlands, and plain) and Cushites. This makes Kenya a multi-lingual nation.

Most Kenyans speak English and Kiswahili therefore you should not worry about a communication barrier while in the country if you speak English. 

Other than the tribal languages spoken in Kenya, there is another fun language spoken by the youth. Read on to find out what that is as I guide you to languages in Kenya.

  1. National and Official languages in Kenya

The national language in Kenya is Kiswahili and is recognized in the constitution of the country. Kiswahili originated from the mix of two cultures, Arab and African. 

When the Arabs came to Kenya to introduce Islam and trade through the Kenyan coast, they intermarried with the Kenyans at the coast.

Kiswahili is therefore a common language in Kenya and its neighbors Tanzania, Rwanda and Congo.

If you are a visiting Kenya for the first time, learning the language is simple, check out these 10 Swahili phrases for your trip.

Kiswahili is taught in both public and private schools under the Kenyan curriculum from kindergarten to secondary schools as a subject.

The other language recognized nationally in Kenya is English. This language was inherited from British colonizers in the 19th century.

English is the official language of Kenya as stated in the constitution. It is the primary language used in formal conversations, court proceedings and the drafting of legal documents. 

All public and private institutions in Kenya teach using the English language, it is also taught as a subject in both primary and secondary schools.

The media in Kenya also uses English as its primary language with shows and discussions being held in English.

2. Sheng, the neighborhood language 

Kenyan youths speak to each other in Sheng, a slang language that is a mix of English, Swahili and other native languages.

Sheng is spoken by the youth all over the country and it varies from one region to another. 

It originated from Nairobi’s Eastlands suburb in the 1950s. It later spread to the other parts of the country and has become part of the lifestyle of the youth and the old too.

Most leaders in Kenya use Sheng when addressing the youth to get their attention, and most artists use the language in comedy or music. 

When speaking to an older person, it is advised that you use either English or Kiswahili, unless they speak to you in sheng first because it is considered rude and disrespectful.

Some common sheng words are sasa-hi, niaje-hey! msee/wasee-guy/guys, Empress-a beautiful girl, checki-check this out, wazi-yes.

The Sheng language evolves daily and new words and meaning to existing words change. It is therefore hard to keep up with this language if you are new.

There is a radio station that runs all its programs in Sheng in a quest to teach the language and to dispel the assumption that the language is associated with ills in the society.

3. Major Local Languages spoken in Kenya

Photo by Pablo Gentile on Unsplash

As mentioned earlier Kenya is made up of more than 45 tribes. These tribes are well distributed in the country while some can only be found in a particular region.

The distribution of the tribes relates to the number of people in the community. In Kenya, there are at least five tribes that lead in numbers, therefore, influencing the language spoken in a particular region.

The major regional languages are Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin, and Kamba. The Kikuyu are predominantly in central and parts of the rift valley in Kenya. 

They are known for their political and economic influence in the country. An interesting fact about the language is that since the British colonialists had a great influence among the Kikuyu, the Kikuyu borrowed the word thank you and shortened it to thengio.  So when saying thank you to a Kikuyu person just say thengio. 

The other languages that are commonly spoken are Luo, Luhya, and Kalenjin. These three tribes are further subdivided into smaller tribes; Luhya has 18 sub-tribes, Luo has more than 20 sub-tribes, and Kalenjin has more than seven sub-tribes.

The basic phrases that you would want to learn are how to say a greeting, please, thank you and goodbye in either the native language or Kiswahili since it is what is widely spoken.

There are other languages spoken in Kenya such as Hindi, Arabic, and Chinese. 

4. Language Schools in Kenya

There are a number of both public and private institutions in Kenya that teach both local and foreign languages.

The languages taught in most private institutions such as primary and secondary schools are German, and French. 

Most universities in Kenya teach German, French, Spanish and Chinese (Mandarin) languages as optional units. The Goethe Institut in Kenya offers courses in the German language.

Other institutions offer classes in both local and international languages.