Kenya is a multilingual African country. There are more than 60 different indigenous languages in Kenya, of which 42 are spoken by major ethnic groups.
With a ton of languages spoken in Kenya, English and Swahili are the most common and official languages.
Other languages, such as Kalenjin and Kikuyu, are spoken by people in specific national areas.
People who live in rural areas speak these other languages as their mother tongue. These less common languages have important and serious effects when it comes to transferring cultural and oral traditions from one generation to the next. The use of these local languages is decreasing daily due to increased literacy levels, and it is very difficult nowadays to access written materials in these local languages.
In this article, I will discuss both the official and local languages of Kenya.
The Official Languages in Kenya
English and Swahili (Kiswahili) are the two official languages in Kenya.
Language #1: English
This is the language of big businesses and the preferred language when conducting government work and studying higher education. For example, most bills presented to the official authorities and papers of court proceedings are drafted in English.
Also, English is the main language used in print and electronic media.
The Kenyan education system primarily relies on English as the language of instruction in all main subjects, except Swahili.
Language #2: Swahili
This is the national language of Kenya and one of the major languages used, especially in Nairobi City.
It is recognized by law as the official language in the country.
Swahili is a Bantu language from the Niger-Congo language family, which is almost universal in small-scale trade, media, and schools through primary education and it is closely connected with urban life and certain occupations.
It is also used in some television broadcasts, print materials, and radio broadcasts along with other African languages.
Swahili was developed early as the 13th century and has been greatly influenced by Arabic. Swahili is considered the most flexible of all languages in East Africa where some foreign words were easily combined with each other (primarily from Arabic, Hindi, Persian, and English).
What is the Regional Languages in Kenya?
There are other major regional languages in Kenya, the most widely spoken being Kikuyu, Luhya, Dholuo, and Sheng languages. I will talk about each one of them briefly below.
Language #3: Kikuyu
There are around 7 million native Kikuyu speakers in Kenya who account for 22% of the country’s population.
It is one of the major regional languages spoken by the Kikuyu people, which is Kenya’s largest ethnic group. It is related to the Embu, Mbeere, and Meru languages spoken by neighboring communities in the Mount Kenya region.
In Kenyan towns, most people speak Kikuyu, even members of other ethnic groups, especially in business situations. It is common to find people conducting business in Kikuyu because they run the majority of Kenya’s businesses. As a result, if you plan to do business in Kenya, you have to learn the Kikuyu language.
Language #3: Lyhya
The total number of native Lyhya speakers in Kenya is about 1.2 million people.
It is a major regional language spoken in Western Kenya and is the second-largest ethnic group after Kikuyu.
Lyhya is not a single language but rather a collection of mutually understood dialects among tribes, and the two biggest Luhya sub-tribes are the Maragoli and the Bukusu.
Six main dialects make up the Luhya language: Hanga, Marama, East Nyala, Kabras, Tsotso, and Kisa.
Language #4: Kalenjin Tribe
This is the third most spoken language in Kenya. This tribe belongs to the Nilotic ethnic group, specifically the highland Nilotic. This group was divided into seven groups that are culturally and linguistically related: Kipsigis, Marakwet, the Nandi, Tugen, Pokot, Sabaot, and Kiyo. Kalenjin is most famous nationally and internationally for athletics and is sometimes referred to as the running tribe.
Language #5: Sheng
Sheng is a commonly spoken slang language in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. Swahili, English, and other ethnic languages were combined into a new language called Sheng.
Sheng uses the grammar and syntax of Swahili but it incorporates other languages, mainly English. In fact, it is more than just slang; it’s a lifestyle, especially among Kenya’s urban youth.
Language #6: Dholuo
This is the language of the Luo people, the third most populous ethnic group. This language is so melodious that other Kenyans find it fascinating to listen to.
Now you can see how diverse and large the languages and culture environment is in Kenya. All this makes Kenya one of the most interesting countries in Africa. You will have fun if you are visiting the country for tourism only, but you may have to learn some new languages if you plan to do business in Kenya.
Drop us a comment below if you have any questions about Kenyan languages and culture.