Planning a trip to Tanzania can be an overwhelming experience. For many, traveling to a new country can be quite a culture shock. Managing this culture shock is all about knowing what to expect and preparing yourself accordingly.
One of the most important elements of Tanzania’s culture is language. In this article, we’re outlining Tanzania’s broad range of spoken languages, and letting you know how you can prepare yourself to communicate with the locals in Tanzania.
What Language Do They Speak in Tanzania?
Let’s get right into it. What language do they speak in Tanzania? We wish we had a simple answer for you, but none such answer exists. In fact, the answer is pretty complicated! Tanzania is one of the most linguistically diverse nations in Africa, with over 100 languages in use across the country.
Swahili and English are the most widely spoken languages across Tanzania. Swahili is Tanzania’s official national language, and it is the language taught in schools.
Until recently, English was taught in secondary schools, but many Tanzanian children found the sudden shift from Swahili to English quite difficult, resulting in many dropouts. The government made Swahili the official language of Tanzanian schools in 2015.
Swahili and English are far from the full story of Tanzania’s linguistic heritage. Across Tanzania, there are 129 languages spoken in total (based on most estimates).
The languages are spoken by the various ethnic groups and communities across Tanzania, with most groups speaking their own language within their own communities.
Most of these languages belong to two large language groups – the Bantu branch (spoken by the Bantu communities) and the Nilotic branch (spoken by the Nilotic communities).
There are also many languages which don’t belong to either branch, such as Khoisan language group and the Afro-Asiatic language group.
“Bridge” Languages of Tanzania
Because Tanzania is such a linguistically diverse nation, English and Swahili operate as bridge languages throughout the country.
They are a secondary language spoken by many members of Tanzania’s population, allowing them to communicate with native-speakers of a different language than their own.
The government pursued Swahili as the national language of Tanzania in an effort to allow more effective communication between communities and tribes.
There is still a large chunk of the Tanzanian population which does not know how to speak either language.
What Do I Need To Know as a Tourist?
If you’re planning to visit Tanzania, then you will be mostly interested in what you need to do to get by as a tourist. For the most part, in major urban areas, you’ll be able to get by just fine with English.
This is especially true if you keep to touristy areas (such as parts of Arusha or Zanzibar), and interact with businesses that regularly serve tourists.
A large segment of the population in these areas have at least a basic understanding of English, with many speaking it fluently.
It’s best never to assume. Remember that you are in Tanzania, and no one owes it to you to speak your language. Try to speak slowly and ask politely if you are unsure. If you can, try to learn a few Swahili words and phrases to get started.
Outside of the main urban centres, you will find less English speakers and Swahili will prevail as the dominant language.
This is once again where it becomes so important to get a basic knowledge of Swahili phrases. Pick up a basic English to Swahili phrase book to get started.
Often, it just helps to show that you are making an effort and people will be happier to speak to you in English (if they can).
Basic Swahili Phrases
It can really help you as a tourist in Tanzania to have a basic knowledge of Swahili phrases.
Even if you are speaking to someone who might know English, it goes a long way to show them that you are making an effort. They will almost always be more receptive if you approach them in this way.
Since we don’t speak Swahili ourselves, we’ll direct you to a great list of Swahili words and phrases at Trip Savvy. Here are some of the basics, but be sure to click the link for more:
Hello – “Jambo”
Goodbye – “kwa heri”
Please – “tafadhali”
Do you speak English? – “u nasema kiingereza”
Hotel – “hoteli”
Thank you for checking out our guide to Tanzanian language. As you can see, this question doesn’t have a simple answer. Tanzania has a rich linguistic landscape, with many languages spoken by many local populations.
As a tourist, as long as you stick to the main urban areas, you should be able to get by fine with English, but it won’t hurt to have a base knowledge of some common Swahili phrases.
Remember, be courteous, and be polite! The people of Tanzania are friendly, welcoming and helpful. Some form of communication is almost always possible if you show that you are making an effort.
Is Tanzania Safe?
Many tourists also have concerns about the safety of Tanzania. Generally speaking, the urban centers and touristy areas are quite safe.
Please take the normal precautions that you would as a tourist in any foreign nation. Watch for pick-pocketers, keep to the main roads (especially at night) and always know the way back to your hotel. It’s about being smart, conscious and aware.
Do They Speak English in Tanzania?
Many Tanzanians speak English quite well, especially in urban areas. There are also many Tanzanians that don’t speak English.
As a tourist, you can generally get by with English in main urban areas, but you should never assume that someone speaks your language, as it comes off presumptive and rude.