Swahili in Tanzania vs Kenya

I took a Swahili immersion course at the State Department language school back in 1983 which mean my Swahili is extremely rusty, to say the least. But I did keep my notes and flashcards that we made in class.

I think I read that one of the developers of the course studied in Tanzania which prompted this discussion note.

I started the Swahili Beta course a few days ago and am enjoying relearning the language. However, I am coming across words that my Kenyan (Kikuyu) instructor never taught or even used. So my question is, can Swahili in Kenya and Tanzania be that different?

March 1, 2017


Yes! After all, they're 2 seperate countries. Why, for example, there's a city in China, GuJing (fact: my family lives there) that has it's own dialect! GuJing Cantonese! And in the city right next to it, HuiCheng, they speak HuiCheng Cantonese! Languages vary in many ways. Swahili is one of them!

March 1, 2017

My experience, as an ESOL teacher and American married to a Kenyan, is that the Swahili most Kenyans speak is a slang version, Sheng, whereas most Tanzanians speak "proper" or formal Swahili. The best analogy I can come up with of Kenyan Swahili vs Tanzanian Swahili is African American Vernacular English vs Standard American English. Kenyan Swahili/Sheng not only has a lot of slang vocabulary, but also drops whole words or parts of words that formal Swahili would not - such as saying "Napika" rather than "Mimi ninapika" for "I am cooking."

I would also think if we're considering the formal Swahili of both countries, the variations are similar to British English vs Standard American English.

March 4, 2017

Just a quick point - "napika" is perfectly good Swahili. It's a different tense - the -a- tense - that can be used for events that are in the present but not tied to a specific time. (Formally, the "present indefinite.") You'll encounter it in conversation, newspaper headlines, and in books, in Tanzania as well as in Kenya.

Here's a book published by a Swahili teaching assistant at the University of Dar es Salaam called "Nasema Swahili":

I've copied the below from

Basically, it's not a tense you need to use (which is why it's not, I think, taught on this course) but it's not bad Swahili!

A TENSE: This is sometimes called "Present Indefinite" or "General Present" in contrast to the "Actual Present" of NA tense.

A tense is not very common in daily speech; NA tense has to a large extent taken over the A- tense function. It is however commonly seen in newspaper headlines.

FUNCTION: To express that (or question whether) an action takes place, generally speaking, in the present or currently, but without reference to an actual time.

Note the difference between A and NA in the following examples:

Ninasoma vitabu. I am reading books (I am now in the act).

Nasoma vitabu. I read books. (a general statement of fact).

Wapenda kusoma? Do you like to read? (at any time, not only at this moment).

WA IMB A They sing


NA L A I eat

March 5, 2017

The present indefinite is quite different from the normal present in which almost ALL Swahili speakers drop the "ni" when referring to the first person singular.

Saying "Ninapika" and "Napika" are essentially interchangeable in Swahili, which is slightly different than the use of the present indefinite :-)!

March 9, 2017

Is it only the 'ni' that is usually dropped? Meaning, swahili speakers normally say nakuja, nakimbea, etc and everyone knows the 'ni' is implied (as opposed to anakuja, etc)? And using 'ni' is a sign that someone is not a native speaker?

August 22, 2017

Asante sana for all the responses. A couple of words/phrases that come to mind that are different are nzuri (good in Kenya) vs njema (good in the current course). I automatically type variations on njuri when "good" is part of the answer. The course always tells me I'm wrong. Also, my Kikuyu mwalimu taught that Hujambo/sijambo/etc was the expected greetings. Yet the course intro suggested those word were reserved for tourists in Tanzania. Small differences are bound to show up. My Brazilian Portuguese was noticed when I was in Angola a few years ago. But nothing insurmountable.

March 4, 2017

I think there's a bit of a misunderstanding. The course notes said that "Jambo" is used for tourists - i.e. the bastardized version for people who aren't considered able to learn how to answer properly :-) (I'd find in Zanzibar especially, someone might greet me with "Jambo", and if I responded "Sijambo" rather than "Jambo", then they'd say something like "Eeeh! Unajua Kiswahili!" and start talking to me.) So Hujambo / Sijambo etc are used in Tanzania, and I think they were tested in the course.

In most contexts, "good" is "nzuri", I think (& definitely "nzuri" is used most in the vast majority of the course.) But "njema" is used a lot in greetings / wishes etc. So for instance I would always say "safari njema", rather than "safari nzuri" when wishing someone a good journey - although I'm not quite sure why!

March 5, 2017

I'm pretty sure I have encountered -zuri in the course, but I can't recall having seen njema so far.

March 4, 2017

Both -ema and -zuri should be accepted for those, so if you see instances where that adjective is not accepted in one form or another, please report so we can make sure both translations are accepted! :-)

March 9, 2017

I don't think it is Kenya and Tanzanian which are that different. I think it is Congo and East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) that have the bigger differences. Nothing major that I can tell, but it seems like Congo puts more of a French accent with its words while the Eastern Africans use a bit more Arabic accent.

Also note that you did learn Swahili 34 years ago. Languages change overtime. Words die out over time. For example, "kompyuta" was probably a newer word in the Swahili language back when you first learned it.

March 2, 2017

Also some of the less formal greetings (like "mambo?") are definitely newer.

There are definitely a few small differences I can think of between Kenyan Swahili & Tanzanian Swahili. skuli vs shule for school (Eng. vs German) Ninaomba /Naomba I think literally means I beg for, but in Tanzania it's used far more frequently to mean sth like I would like. It feeds into joking stereotypes shared to some extent in both countries where Tanzanians are seen as weirdly overly polite and Kenyans as rude There will be more that I haven't thought of or that I don't specifically know.

My impression is that the course is Tanzanian Swahili - and mainland Tanzania at that, but that that will be understood across the wider area where Swahili's spoken.

March 2, 2017

Haha I thought it the Tanzanians were rude and the Kenyans were polite, well I guess if it's a Tanzanian looking at it or a Kenyan.

The course is definitely Tanzanian. That's the way the Peace Corps Swahili course is set up.

March 6, 2017

Kenyan Swahili generally does not differentiate among noun classes in the same depth that Tanzanian Swahili does, so that is why we are using the grammatically "proper" (if you will) Swahili for the course. Tanzanian Swahili is understood throughout East Africa, though people who speak mixed "Swanglish" or "Shang", as it is called, will think it is strange to hear the "academic/classroom" Swahili.

March 9, 2017

Oh no, we definitely do although the average Tanzanian and Kenyan has no idea what noun classes are. It's important to note, Kenyans learn swahili sanifu in school and many people are capable of communicating in it, I have vivid memories of writing Inshas. I am shocked that someone here used hujambo and was not understood. I almost find that hard to believe. There are zero communication barriers. I know this because my closest friend in Middle school was Tanzanian and noun classes and grammar were never a problem. However, she would occasionally pronounce a word differently or use a different word and we would then bicker about it. I have put up translations of Tanzanian songs online. If you go on Jamii forums, you will find plenty of arguments between Kenyans and Tanzanians in Kiswahili sanifu. However, most Kenyans still use a less formal and slangy version of swahili. Much like the French have verlan.

April 17, 2019

Swahili spoken in Kenya and the Swahili spoken in Tanzania varry. Some words are spelt differently while others are pronounced differently. Just like in American English and British English. However the difference isn't so significant that we can't understand each other.

March 4, 2017

If you spend time in Mombasa or along the Kenyan coast you will find that the people there speak "kiswahili halisi" - pure or proper swahili just as well as people in Dar es Salaam do. After all, swahili IS a coastal language and culture so the people in Dar are more proficient in it than people in let's say Bukoba or Nairobi. The first time I said "Shikamuu/Shikamoo" to an old person in Nairobi she just looked at me blankly like "whaaat". Also when I greeted people "Hujambo" some people, unlike the people in ZNZ, responded "Jambo!" thinking that's what I said. I would agree with that TZ/KA swahili are in difference like US/brittish english.

March 15, 2017

Thanks for all the info on this thread! Very useful! Just wanted to double check though, I've just moved to Nairobi and am 1/4 of the way through this course... is it still worth continuing? I want to be able to speak Swahili mostly with rural communities around Kenya and possibly Tanzania, but it would also be great to speak Swahili/Sheng with Nairobians!

September 14, 2018

Any advice/recommendations on more suitable courses/books would be great!

September 14, 2018

Yes, the course is very good for Swahili spoken throughout East Africa. I've lived in Tanzania for 14 years and taught Swahili for the past 9 years, and we all understand each other just fine no matter where in East Africa you come from...there are differences like in the USA people from the north and south differ with using words like pop or soda but I don't know of a better online interactive course. Learning Swahili from Tanzania is the best because people will be impressed by your grammar :)

October 15, 2018
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