Language Attitudes towards varieties of Swahili

Lutz Marten (SOAS University of London, U.K.)
Itesh Sachdev (SOAS University of London, U.K.)
Topic: Anthropological Linguistics
The GLOCAL AFALA 2023 Colloquium


The role of Swahili as a regional lingua franca and its speaker population has been growing rapidly, reaching well beyond East Africa (Blommaert 2014, Mugane 2015). Swahili has been adopted as an official language in the African Union and is the first African language to celebrate a dedicated UNESCO day on 7 July each year. South Africa plans to teach Swahili in schools and Swahili is widely taught in universities across continents. Within East Africa, important debates continue on the use of Swahili in education (Mapunda and Gibson 2022).

As Swahili expands to more domains of use and is presented as a beneficial tool by organisations and institutions, it is increasingly important to see how this reflects the daily realities of Swahili speech communities. This is especially important as Swahili is spoken in varied and often multilingual contexts and new speaker groups bring with them their own historical and social narratives, language attitudes and ideologies. This has resulted in increased variation within Swahili and has an impact on questions of language ownership, language prestige and patterns of language use.

In this paper, we turn to language attitudes and perceptions as an essential area of research to be included in such debates. We examine attitudes towards Swahili from across Kenya and Tanzania to answer the following questions:

1) How do attitudes to Swahili vary across different communities?
2) How do speakers perceive different varieties of Swahili?
3) What role do language attitudes and perceptions play in speakers’ patterns of language use?

We present data collected through language use and attitudes questionnaires, perceptual surveys and sociolinguistic interviews. Our analysis focuses on the multilingual ecologies in which Swahili and its varieties exist and the way speakers relate different languages in those contexts. We show that there are different attitudes to variation, ownership and language use both between and within varying speech communities. Through this, we draw attention to the importance of centering communities and their language use when searching for meaningful and inclusive language policies and planning.

Blommaert, Jan. 2014. State Ideology and Language in Tanzania. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Mapunda, G. and Gibson, H. 2022. On the suitability of Swahili for early schooling in remote rural Tanzania: do policy and practice align? Journal of the British Academy. 10 (s4), 141-168.
Mugane, John M. 2015. The Story of Swahili. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Keywords: East Africa, language attitudes, Swahili, lingua franca