Languages in Kenya

Kiswahili is the National language of Kenya and together with English are the official languages.

42 distinct languages are spoken in the country and many children in the rural areas continue to use their mother tongue as the first language of communication. Languages have important implications in the passage of culture and oral traditions, which are the basis for community identity, interaction and integration. Local languages are still on the decline, especially in their written form. Efforts by renowned Kenyan authors such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o to promote ethnic languages remain a dream.

Urban Kenyans are, however, so creative that they have come up with a slang known as Sheng that has spread in usage from urban youth to all sectors of society. Sheng is a combination of English and Kiswahili and has borrowed from a majority of the ethnic languages spoken in Nairobi. It evolves rapidly, making words that are fashionable today ‘old’ tomorrow.

It is part of popular street culture in Nairobi and many other large towns. The use of Sheng by music artistes in their lyrics has made its growth much more rapid in recent years.

Kenya’s population is largely African but there are minorities: Asians (Indians, Pakistanis and Goans) and Europeans.

Kiswahili has a heavy base in Bantu languages at the Coast with a mixture of Arabic. Originally spoken at the Coast, the language is now widely spoken throughout Kenya and, indeed, eastern Africa.

Kiswahili aims to create national cohesion and understanding based on communication of values through a common language. As Kenyans intermarry, Kiswahili has taken a new shape as it borrows from local languages and English to create a new language, Sheng.

The official language, English, is used for international trade, education and jurisprudence. Both languages, however, are used in politics, among other situations.

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