How much do you know about the language spoken in Tanzania? Did you know that the country is the most linguistically diverse in East Africa? Or that it is home to 126 languages in total? In this post, I’m going to look in detail at all things Tanzania language related. Would you care to join me?
Tanzania is a country of vast linguistic diversity. No other country in East Africa speaks more languages than can be heard in Tanzania, making it a great location to put under the spotlight.
Tanzania is home to well over 100 languages, 58 of which are in vigorous use. What is the official language of Tanzania? Actually, it doesn’t have a de jure official language, but Swahili is the country’s national language and used as a lingua franca by a large percentage of the population. English is also used as a de facto language in Tanzania, though the decision to remove it as a language of instruction in education in 2015 may have some bearing on this in future (I’ll expand on this a bit more below).
Languages in Tanzania also include 40 endangered tongues, eight dying languages and three languages that have become extinct in recent years. And then there are 18 developing Tanzania languages, as well as multiple Tanzanian sign languages.
Including second language speakers, Swahili (called Kiswahili by Tanzanians) is the most widely used Tanzania language. As many as 90% of Tanzanians speak it, though just 10% do so natively.
Swahili is used in parliament in Tanzania and in the country’s lower courts. It is also used for instruction in school, with the use of English as the main language of instruction in secondary schools and higher education establishments being phased out following educational reforms announced by then-President Jakaya Kikwete in early 2015.
English is also widely spoken as a second language, reflecting Tanzania’s colonial past.
Tanzania languages total an impressive 126. When Tanzania gained independence in 1961, one of the country’s founding principles was that no ethnic group should dominate (there are around 129 ethnic groups in Tanzania). Language was used to ensure this was the case, with Swahili used as a means of unifying all Tanzanians.
Nowadays, around 90% of Tanzanians speak Swahili, mostly as a second language. Yet some argue that this is at the expense of the country’s other native languages. Ethnic community languages are not officially permitted as a language of instruction in schools and are not taught as a subject. One result of this is that many young Tanzanians in urban areas are now growing up speaking Swahili as their first language, rather than the language their parents speak as their native tongue.
Tanzanians are also banned from using ethnic community languages to create television and radio programmes, meaning that using these mediums to keep the country’s endangered languages alive is not possible.
Let’s look now at some of the languages spoken in Tanzania.
Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, did much to promote the extensive use of Swahili. Armed with Swahili as its official language Tanzania brought its many different ethnic groups together admirably.
This strong tradition of using Swahili as the Tanzania main language continues to this day. In recent years, Tanzania has become the first country in sub-Saharan African to use an African language throughout its education system. It’s a move that makes complete sense from the pupils’ perspective. Previously, children were educated in Swahili at primary level, before switching to English for their secondary and higher education. Unsurprisingly, many struggled to adjust and either struggled to keep up or dropped out entirely.
Though it is less widely spoken than Swahili, English is still spoken by a significant proportion of the population, having arrived in Tanzania during Britain’s colonization of the country (which followed its inclusion in German East Africa).
Today, many educated Tanzanians speak English as a third language, having had to learn it in depth in order to complete their education. And while English has lost its status as the language of education, it is still used in the higher courts, for foreign trade and for diplomatic relations.
Spoken mainly in the northern part of Tanzania (as well as over the border in Kenya), Maasai is an Eastern Nilotic language that is native to the Maasai people. A nomadic people who inhabit largely desert land, the Maasai have managed to resist much of the rise of Swahili and English in Tanzania, though some erosion of their language is still evident. Strictly speaking, ‘Maasai’ should be used to refer to the Maasai people and their culture, while their language is called ‘Maa’. However, ‘Maasai’ has fallen into popular use to describe their language as well.
Tanzania is home to seven Datooga tribes. Some speak very similar versions of Datooga, while others speak dialects that are almost mutually unintelligible – to the point that some linguists class East Datooga and West Datooga as distinct languages. For more on the differences between languages and dialects, you can click the link below.
There is also debate as to Datooga’s classification as a language. It is likely part of the Nilo-Saharan language family, but this is open to debate.
Datooga, which is also known as Datog, Datoga, Taturu, Mang'ati, Tatoga and Tatog, is spoken in Tanzania’s Great Rift Valley.
A Tanzania language spoken in the Maasai territory to the south of Arusha, Ogiek is a language that is being lost as its hunter-gatherer speakers assimilate into the other cultures around them. The variety of Ogiek used in Tanzania is called Akiek. However, as far back so the 1980s, most Akiek speakers also spoke Maasai fluently and this Tanzanian language was dying out as a result of that shift.
Another of the native Tanzania languages that make up the country’s rich linguistic diversity, Kisankasa – also known as Kisi – is a Bantu language that is still in vigorous use, though only around half of the Kisi people still speak it these days. It is not to be confused with the Kissi language spoken in West Africa.
The Pare language of Tanzania also goes by the names of Kipare, Asu, Casu, Chasu, Athu and Chathu. It is a Bantu language group tongue that is spoken by the Pare people in the northeast of Tanzania.
Native Digo speakers number around 360,000. They are resident to both Tanzania and Kenya. Digo is a Bantu language that is very closely related to Swahili and that has four main dialects.
In addition to being a language spoken in Tanzania, Bemba is spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, where it is a lingua franca and the most spoken of the country’s indigenous languages. Also known as ChiBemba, Cibemba, Ichibemba, Icibemba and Chiwemba, Bemba is spoken in the southern part of Tanzania.
As an aside, if you’re interested in the languages spoken elsewhere in Africa, click the link below.
Another of the Bantu languages of Tanzania, Safwa is spoken by the Safwa people, who inhabit the country’s Mbeya region. Safwa has four dialects: Guruka, Mbwila, Poroto and Songwe.
Known for its complex tense-aspect-mood system, Hehe is a Tanzania language that is native to the Iringa region of the country, to the south of the Great Ruaha River. It is a Bantu language that is referred to as Kihehe by its speakers, who today number fewer than 200,000.
Spoken in southeast Tanzania (as well as northern Mozambique), Makonde is a Bantu language with two divergent dialects: Matembwe and Mabiha. Also called Kimakonde, Makonde is closely related to Tanzania’s Yao language.
Yao has some 500,000 speakers in Tanzania, along with an equal number in Mozambique and around two million speakers in Malawi. Yao is spoken across several parts of Tanzania, including south central areas and along the Mozambican border. It is known by a wide range of names in English, including chiYao, ciYao, Achawa, Adsawa, Adsoa, Ajawa, Ayawa, Ayo, Ayao, Djao, Haiao, Hiao, Hyao, Jao, Veiao and waJao.
I’m not going to list all 126 Tanzania languages, but some other notable tongues include Nyamwezi, Luguru, Iraqw, Gorowa, Burunge, Hadza and Sandawe. The last two are click dialects spoken by some of Tanzania’s hunter-gatherer communities.
A number of imported languages are also in use in Tanzania (in addition to English). These include Hindustani, Portuguese, French and Gujarati.
There is some debate around which language groups some Tanzania languages belong to, but broadly the languages spoken there fit into the Bantu, Cushitic, Nilotic and Khoisan groupings. The Hadza language, meanwhile, is considered a language isolate (despite formerly being lumped in with the Khoisan languages).
Many Tanzania languages fall within the Niger-Congo language group, with Bantu languages spoken in Tanzania including:
A number of the languages of Tanzania are classed as Nilo-Saharan, fitting into the Nilotic subgroup. These include:
Known for their click consonants, Khoisan languages are spoken in many parts of Africa. In Tanzania, the Sandawe language is classed as a Khoisan language.
Tanzania is home to a handful of Afro-Asiatic languages. These include Cushitic languages such as Alagwa, Burunge, Gorowa and Iraqw, along with Arabic, which is a Semitic language. Arabic (along with Swahili and English) is an official language in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous, self-governing state that forms part of the United Republic of Tanzania.
Several Indo-European languages are spoken in Tanzania. Germanic languages spoken there include English and German, Romance languages include French and Portuguese and Indo-Iranian languages include Gujarati, Hindustani and Kutchi.
I mentioned above that Ogiek (Akiek) is being subsumed by Maasai, but it is not the only language of Tanzania that is being lost to other tongues.
Another example of language loss in Tanzania is Asa, which is variously referred to as Aasá, Aasax, Aasá, Aasáx, Aramanik, Asak, Asax, Assa and Asá. It was spoken by the Asa people in northern Tanzania, but today it is no longer spoken natively by anyone. Just a few words remain in living memory, most of them words that ethnic Asa remember hearing their elders use long since.
While languages naturally die out over time, political moves such as the widescale promotion of Swahili in Tanzania can do much to accelerate this process, meaning that languages such as Asa become lost forevermore.
Language in Tanzania is intrinsically linked with the culture and history of each of the country’s ethnic peoples. As such, when a language is lost, so is a core part of one of the peoples who make Tanzania what it is today.
With few robust and coordinated measures in place in Tanzania to preserve ethnic languages – and, indeed with their use banned for educational purposes and in the production of radio, television and even most newspaper content – it is clear that many of these culturally important languages may be heading towards the same fate as Asa and Akiek.
From a linguistic and an historic perspective, as well as a cultural standpoint, this is a huge loss.
I’ve enjoyed this exploration of all things Tanzania language related, so I hope you have too. We’ve covered quite a bit of ground, including:
• The official language of Tanzania
• The languages spoken by a range of Tanzanian ethnic groups
• Which language people from Tanzania speak more than any other
• Why the people of Tanzania are losing their ethnic languages
• Which language families the languages of Tanzania belong to
That’s it for my round-up of Tanzania language details, but if you’re hungry for more, why not check out my article on the languages of South Africa next?