Kiswahili Adds to Britain’s Rich Linguistic Tapestry

The rich tapestry of approximately 500 languages spoken in Britain includes two intriguing tongues originating from East Africa – Kiswahili and Kikuyu.

Both are spoken in London, where more than 250 languages contribute to the fascinating diversity of life in the English capital. Around three-quarters of Londoners (76%) speak English, but for more than one in five of its 1.7 million residents (22%) English is not their first language.

Gujarati, Urdu, Arabic and Kiswahili are among the 53 main languages spoken by migrants, with Kiswahili and Kikuyu heard most commonly in the London boroughs of Newham and Hillingdon.

African languages

In a recent survey of 900,000 children in London, 609,500 said English is the first language spoken in their home.

But the research revealed the extent of African languages – Swahili, Luganda, Somali, Lingala, Ga, Akan, Igbo, Yoruba, Tigrinya and Amharic – as they featured in almost 40,000 responses.

As Kenyan media agency reports, it is more than half a century since Kiswahili was first heard in Britain, with the BBC World Service having launched its Kiswahili service from the capital’s Bush House in 1957 primarily for people in the East Africa region.

One of the fascinating aspects of language is how it evolves, and the report makes clear that Kiswahili is no exception. The language is said to have been used by African broadcasters in years gone by primarily in a social context or among colleagues in the office. But its use has now spread among Britain’s Kenyan population, as well people originally from other nations such as Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Comoros and Oman.

It is also a reminder of the bonding nature of language, as East Africans who overhear strangers speaking Kiswahili in Britain often inevitably finding themselves striking up conversations and building new friendships.

Briton James Penhaligon, author of the popular Speak Swahili Dammit! spent his childhood in East Africa. He is quoted as professing his ongoing love for Swahili, a language he learnt to speak before English. “There are hundreds of thousands of East Africans here,” he said of modern day Britain. “In places like Coventry and Leicester, for example, there are many shops belonging to former East African residents, where you can speak Swahili with nearly everyone.”

The term Kiswahili refers to the Swahili language, which is a national language of Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Uganda.

With language by its very nature a two-way phenomenon, Kiswahili’s contribution to the rich tapestry of London it is also worth noting as it has itself absorbed other influences and evolved as time has passed.

The language’s vocabulary has incorporated words from English and the likes of German, Portuguese and French through empire and trade activities in past centuries – a reminder of how language, culture and history are so fascinatingly intertwined. Kiswahili is said to be a relatively straightforward language to learn, thanks in part to its phonetic nature and the consistent pronunciation of vowels. That’s not to say it will be a walk in the park – especially for a total beginner – though it should be a thrilling one.

There are plenty of quirks that a newcomer will need to get their head around, such as noun classes and the attachment of affixes to verbs to denote, for example, a person and a tense within the word.

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