Back to School: German Adults Learning Kiswahili

Every Wednesday evening a group of Germans from Bonn go back to the classroom to learn Kiswahili. The East African language is spoken by more than 100 million people and its popularity is growing.

Hoyce Mbowe teaching Swahili

When Tanzanian Hoyce Mbowe came to Germany in 2008 she wanted to learn the German language and study theology at Bonn University. Today, she is a teacher at the Volkshochschule Bonn (adult education center) teaching her native language, Kiswahili. She hoped the contact with her students would also help her improve her limited German skills. While this worked well for Hoyce, her students are having a tough time. “In teaching Kiswahili I recognize that it is not an easy language,” Hoyce told DW.

Every Wednesday evening when their colleagues knock off work, Kard, Gabrielle, Bärbel and Carl-Philipp go back to school again to learn a language that has almost nothing in common with their mother tongue.

Growing importance of Kiswahili

German Kiswahili students in the classroom

When their colleagues knock off work, these students hit the books again

With the exception of Arabic, Kiswahili is probably the best known of the 1,500 to 2,000 African languages spoken today, says a publication of the Department of African Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. It is estimated that more than 100 million people speak the East African language.

Kiswahili emerged in the 9th century as a common language for African, Arab and Portuguese merchants who frequently traded in the coastal areas of Zanzibar and Lamu. From there, it quickly spread to the heartlands of East and Central African countries.

The word Swahili comes from the Arabic word Sahil which means coast or boundaries. The prefix Ki- means language. Therefore, Kiswahili means ‘coastal language.’ Unlike Arabic, Kiswahili was influenced during the era of Western domination in the 19th century by English, Portuguese and German. For example, polisi (police), baiskeli (bicycle) or redio (radio) are taken from English, while Shule (German ‘Schule’, school) and bruda (German ‘Bruder’, brother) are taken from German. Elements from Hindi, Greek and Latin can also be found.

Kiswahili is classified as a Bantu language that is mainly spoken in the Congo-Niger area. It is the official language of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda and, since 2004, of the African Union (AU). Five eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo are Kiswahili-speaking. It is also spoken in Burundi and Rwanda.

Most Africans speak Kiswahili as their second or third language. Only 5 million are considered to be native speakers. Nevertheless, the importance of Kiswahili is growing. Not only in Africa itself but especially for European and other Western countries, says Hoyce Mbowe. “I think there is a growing relationship between Africa and people from Europe. People from here, they visit Africa. Most of the people from East Africa, for instance, they speak Swahili. So if you really want to communicate, to be close to the people, you need the language.”

Speaking Kiswahili ‘is more fun’

Two adult female students in the Kiswahili class

Kiswahili grammar can be demanding

That is the motivation of most students in Hoyce’s class. Bärbel is 45 years old and works at Bonn University as a coordinator for projects in East Africa. Her African contacts speak English. However, being able to practise the Kiswahili she has learned is more fun, Bärbel says.

However, learning Kiswahili does not seem to be all that much fun. Classmate Gabrielle sums up: “It’s very difficult; the very long words and the pronunciation. All grammar is put in one word and so you have to analyze the word; what is the verb, where is the prefix, where is the time?” Her son works as a volunteer in Tanzania. Gabrielle wants to visit him – with some knowledge of Kiswahili in her baggage.

While Bärbel and Gabrielle are motivated mainly by work or family considerations, Kard and Carl-Philipp have African roots. Both were born in Tanzania.

Kard was born during the colonial era in Bukoba. His Belgian father worked there as an agronomist. When riots broke out in the 1960s, the family left the country. Kard did not learn Kiswahili as a child. But his parents could speak it. “Every time when the children were not supposed to understand,” Kard said mischievously.

The Food from Zanzibar bistro in Bonn

Students can try out their Kiswahili skills at this Bonn restaurant

In 1996, when Carl-Philipp was 13 years old, his family returned to Germany. As a child he picked up the language while playing with his Tanzanian friends. Now, after living in Germany for ten years, he is finding it hard to refresh his knowledge, especially as he never learnt the grammar in a formal way.

Carl-Philipp would like to practise more. Listening to DW’s Kiswahili program is still too difficult for him. But in Bonn, there is a Tanzanian restaurant where he likes to go. “I heard them speaking Kiswahili but I was too shy to speak to them because I was embarrassed for not speaking well,” he admitted.

The four students are determined to continue with their studies and have signed up for the next course which starts in September. Khila la keri! Good luck!

– DW