Swahili is, perhaps, the most important and useful African language to consider learning. It could be said that Swahili is the “English of East Africa.” We know that there are many more people who actively speak English as a second language than those for whom English is a mother tongue. The same is true about Swahili: although it is native to about 15 million people in East Africa, no fewer than an impressive 150 million speak it as a second language.
The main significance of Swahili is that it serves as a lingua franca (commonly used language) all over East Africa. Swahili is an official language (in most cases co-official with English) in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Comoros. It is also spoken to varying degrees in Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia. if you look at the map you will discover that all of these countries put together comprise a good chunk of the continent.
Just as English, a language with Germanic roots, has been borrowing a great amount of Latin and French words throughout the medieval period, Swahili has absorbed a high number of Arabic words, although the structural and grammatical foundation of the language is distinctively Bantu, or native African. If the Norman Conquest and the Latin church learning led to an influx of French and Latin vocabulary in English, active trade and commercial enterprises of Arab merchants all along the East Coast of Africa along with the spread of Islam caused Swahili to integrate Arabic words.
Other sources of loan vocabulary in Swahili, due to the same reasons (trade, colonization, missionary efforts), are Portuguese and English. Swahili words such as meza “table” or pesa “money” came from Portuguese, while basi “bus” or penseli “pencil” are undoubtedly of English origin. In spite of all these borrowings from other languages, the foundation of the language is Bantu, and Swahili is related to many other lesser known and less influential languages of East and Central Africa.
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