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Swahili Language and Cultures. Alwiya S. Omar STARTALK May 2009. Swahili or Kiswahili. One of the major languages spoken in Eastern and Central Africa It is the official language of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda Swahili is also spoken in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, and Somalia

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swahili language and cultures

Swahili Language and Cultures

Alwiya S. Omar


swahili or kiswahili
Swahili or Kiswahili
  • One of the major languages spoken in Eastern and Central Africa
  • It is the official language of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda
  • Swahili is also spoken in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, and Somalia
  • There are about 60 million people who speak Swahili - only about 3 million people are first language speakers and others speak it as a fluent 2nd or or as a 3rd language
varieties of swahili
Varieties of Swahili
  • There are over 11 varieties of Swahili spoken along the East African coast
  • Some of these dialects are Kiamu spoken in Lamu island, Kiunguja spoken in Unguja island (Zanzibar), Kimvita spoken in Mombasa
  • Standard Swahili is based on the Kiunguja variety
swahili script
Swahili script
  • Initially Swahili was written using Arabic script as early as the 17th century because of the Arabs who came to the East African coast as traders and rulers
  • It was replaced by the Roman alphabet by European missionaries in order to produce religious materials
  • Roman script was adapted and regularized in standard orthography in the 1930s
swahili words you already know
Swahili words you already know
  • Hakuna matata
  • Safari
  • Asante sana
  • Kwanzaa (African American celebration) ‘first fruits’ and the seven principles some of which are:
  • Umoja ‘Unity’
  • Kujichagulia ‘Self determination’
  • Nia ‘Purpose’
swahili language
Swahili language
  • Swahili is a Bantu language of the Niger Congo family
  • It is characterized by Noun Class grammatical genders
  • Nouns are grouped into classes associated roughly with semantic characteristics - people, trees, things, abstract concepts, etc
  • Concordial system - noun/verb and noun/adjective agreement
language borrowings
Language borrowings
  • Due to long interaction with other language speakers, Swahili has many borrowed words like:
  • Kitabu ‘book’ (Arabic) (plural vitabu)
  • Shati ‘shirt’ (English) (plural mashati)
  • Bendera ‘Flag’ (Portuguese)
  • Serikali ‘Governemnt’ (Persian)
  • Shule ‘School’ (German)
swahili cultures
Swahili cultures
  • Swahili speakers have a unique way of telling the time:
  • 1st hour of the day begins after sunrise and not after midnight

7am = saa moja asubuhi

‘hour one morning’

  • 1st hour of the night begins after sunset

7pm = saa moja usiku

‘hour one night’

swahili cultures10
Swahili cultures
  • Unique to Swahili speakers is the way they communicate to each other indirectly using proverbial messages on the traditional cloth called ‘kanga’ also known as ‘leso’
  • Kangas are also given as gifts and they have multiple purposes
kanga messages
Kanga messages
  • Expression of love
  • Expression of gratitude
  • Praying to God
  • Giving advice and warnings
  • Innuendos
example of a scenario from swahili standards family beginning level
Example of a scenario from Swahili Standards: Family - Beginning level
  • Targeted Standards

1.1 Interpersonal communication

1.2 Interpretive Communication

2.1 Cultural practices

4.2 Cultural comparisons


Students listen to a Swahili speaker presenting his/her family tree and/or family photograph(s). Students learn Swahili kinship names and how they differ from those in English. With this vocabulary, students complete their own family tree, share information about their families with the class, and ask their classmates about their families.

  • How the Standards are Met

1.1 Students exchange information in Swahili about their family members and ancestors.

1.2 Students listen to family tree presentations in Swahili.

2.1 Students learn about Swahili family relationships

4.2 Students contrast Swahili family relationships with those of their own culture.


Students who might be uncomfortable discussing their family, could create a family tree for a friend or famous person instead. The activity could be combined with a lesson on introductions, with students introducing their family members with simple sentences such as, Huyu ni baba yangu. Jina lake ni ... (This is my father. His name is ...). At intermediate level, students could discuss the various roles played by different family members, and role play family situations.

extensions cont
Extensions (cont)

This scenario could be adapted for intermediate and advanced levels requiring students to provide more detailed information about family members. Intermediate or advanced students might interview a Swahili speaker in their community and trace that person’s ancestry, or research the family tree(s) of famous East Africans.



A project of the National African Language Recourse Center (NALRC) in collaboration with the African Language Teachers Association (ALTA)


swahili languages and cultures
Swahili languages and Cultures

Thank You

For questions, please contact

Alwiya S. Omar