Official Languages of Kenya [Updated 2021]

Official Languages of Kenya

Written by Kristina Temelkova

I'm from Stara Zagora, Bulgaria and I'm currently pursuing an English degree at the University of Vienna. My lifelong passions are languages and writing. I speak English, Bulgarian, German and Russian.

June 2, 2021

Have you ever wondered about the official languages of Kenya? Kenya is a multilingual country situated in Eastern Africa. It is the 29th most populous country in the world with a population of nearly 55 million people.

This is among the earliest regions where modern humans or homo sapiens are thought to have lived. The Kenyan Highlands are among the most successful agricultural production regions in Africa.

What’s more, on Africa’s second-highest peak, Mount Kenya, can be found numerous glaciers, the Lewis Glacier being the biggest one. Lake Victoria is the largest tropical lake as well as the second-largest freshwater lake.

The huge variety of wildlife greatly contributes to the country’s economy and tourism. Kenya has been a research hotspot for decades due to its diverse wildlife and nature.

Tourism in Kenya

One of Kenya’s greatest treasures remains its linguistic diversity. Kenya has a rich linguistic and cultural heritage – between 60 and 70 languages spoken on its territory.

Besides English and Swahili, a number of indigenous languages are only spoken in small communities. This linguistic variety has had an effect on the people living in Kenya – a big part of the urban population is multilingual.

linguistic variety in Kenya

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In this blog, we will break down the linguistic heritage of one of the most beautiful and multiethnic countries in Africa – Kenya.

1. Official languages of Kenya

There are two official languages in Kenya – English, and Swahili. Due to the linguistic diversity of the country, these two languages function as lingua francas. In other words, these two languages are the means of communication between the speakers of different languages in Kenya.

English

In 1920 Kenya became a British colony, but it was a protectorate since 1885.

It was the British who brought the English language to Kenya and since then it has established itself as the language of official matters such as administration, laws, politics, business, education, and the media.

biggest cities in Kenya

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The official English language mentioned is a relatively standard variety. However, there is also Kenyan English which a recognized English variety and fairly frequently used instead of Standard English.

Also read: [TOP 5] English Speaking Countries in Africa

What’s more, Kenyan English is mutually intelligible with the other English dialects. It differs in terms of vocabulary, some figures of speech, and pronunciation.

There are no official statistics on the number of English speakers in Kenya. Having in mind that English an official language and also taught at schools, we can assume that most educated individuals have at least a basic understanding of the language.

According to these rough estimations around 30-50% of the Kenyan population know English. In regard to native English speakers, their numbers are rather small since they limited to only British and American immigrants.

Swahili

This is the most widely spoken language in the country and is considered to be the lingua franca of Eastern Africa.

Population of Swahili speakers

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Interestingly, Swahili originated from Kenya. According to linguists, it evolved from a language called Kingozi around the 13th century.

Swahili is influenced by Arabic – 30% of its words stem from it. Even its name means “coast” in Arabic. However, Swahili uses the Latin script.

Also Read: 10 Reasons Why Arabic Is An Incredibly Interesting Language

Kenyan people refer to the Swahili language as Kiswahili – ki means language in Swahili. Similarly, in Swahili to the names of all languages added the prefix ki. For instance, kiigereza would mean the languages of English.

Although Swahili has originated from the territory of Kenya, the number of Swahili native speakers is estimated to be only around 2 million people.

Since the language taught at schools, however, in its Standard Zanzibar accent, nearly 100% of the population of Kenya can speak Swahili.

There are 7 Swahili dialects. The most prominent of them would be Sheng which is a combination of Swahili and English – the languages on which it is primarily based.

Its name, Sheng, is a combination of the words Swahili and English. It was spoken mainly by the young people in Nairobi and other cities. Nowadays, Swahili is spoken by the cosmopolitan, well-educated people in Kenya.

2. Minority or tribal languages of Kenya

As mentioned above, there are nearly 70 languages spoken in Kenya. It would be impossible to present you with all of them, so we have picked out the most interesting ones.

Of course, the table shows only a fraction of the languages of Kenya. Nevertheless, it clearly shows how diverse the linguistic heritage of Kenya is.

It should also point out that there are three main language families in Kenya and this division has a profound significance to the Kenyan culture.

The three language families, in fact, denote three main ethnic groups which besides similarities in their languages, share a lot in regard to their culture.

Check Out: LANGUAGE INFOGRAPHIC GALLERY

Kenyan languages can divided into three language groups: Cushitic, Nilotic, and Bantu. The Cushitic languages are part of the Afro-Asiatic family, the Nilotic belong to the Nilo-Saharan language family and the Bantu are part of the Niger-Kordofanian family.

Tribal Languages of Kenya 1

Tribal Languages of Kenya 2

3. Immigrant languages of Kenya

The linguistic diversity of Kenya significantly boosted by immigration from South Asia or more particularly, from India. Nowadays, around 90,000 people with Indian heritage live in Kenya and many of them even have citizenship.

These Indian communities are recognized as minorities and have the status of a Kenyan tribe.

The Indian populations are primarily situated in the cities of Mombasa and Nairobi. Some of their languages are Hindi, Punjabi and Tamil.

The city of Mombasa is home to another recognized minority in Kenya – the Arab community. It consists of around 60,000 people from Yemen and Oman.

These so-called Coastal Arabs or Kenyan Arabs speak Arabiya which is an Arabic dialect belonging to the Afro-Asiatic language family. They also speak Swahili.

Check Out: GLOBAL LANGUAGE FACTS

Last, but not least, there is a relatively large number of Somali immigrants in Kenya. It should be pointed out that the Somali language is native to Kenya and it was not brought about by the Somali immigrants. Nowadays, there are more than 2 million Somali speakers in Kenya.

To Conclude

To say that Kenya is a diverse country would be simply an understatement!

Its linguistic heritage is truly one of a kind and not many other countries around the world can take pride in having so many different languages spoken on their territory.

The lingua francas of Kenya and the African continent, English, and Swahili are only a drop in the linguistic ocean of Kenya. In the rural areas, the population is less multilingual, however, with many people speaking only their native languages.

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