Four Languages of Tanzania

[ 0 ] February 17, 2016 |

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

Tanzania translationOn the east coast of Africa, in the African Great Lakes region, lies the United Republic of Tanzania. It is the home of the highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro, as well as being among the poorest countries in the world. It is very diverse, with a population that includes many different ethnic groups practicing many different religions. This ethnic diversity is exactly what makes Tanzania so linguistically diverse, more so than any other country in East Africa. More than 100 languages are spoken in Tanzania by their corresponding ethnic groups.

Though there are two official languages in Tanzania, they are mainly used as lingua francas. There is no one language that the majority of the population speaks natively, making it difficult to categorize the languages of Tanzania by the greatest number of speakers or otherwise. However, here are four languages spoken in Tanzania:

1. Swahili

Swahili is an interesting language as only about 15 million people speak it as a first language, maximum. It ends up being used mostly as a lingua franca, as it is in Tanzania. It is a Bantu language specific to the Swahili ethnic group, who inhabit the African Great Lakes are of Africa as well as other areas of Southeast Africa. A big portion of Swahili vocabulary has Arabic origins, due to contact with Arabic-speaking traders in the past. It is a national language in three other countries besides Tanzania: Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

2. Maasai

Just like most languages of African origins, including Swahili, Maasai is spoken by the ethnic group that shares its name. It is an Eastern Nilotic language that may be part of the bigger Nilo-Saharan language family. Maasai is spoken in the northern region of Tanzania as well as southern Kenya, where the about 800,000 remaining Maasai live. The languages closest to Maasai are Samburu and Chamus, as well as Parakuyu.

3. Datooga

Datooga is probably in the Nilo-Saharan language family, in the Nilotic branch, but there is some debate about this categorization of it. It is the language of the Datooga ethnic group that lives in the Great Rift Valley of Tanzania. Datooga is technically not one language but a dialect cluster, meaning a group of very similar and related languages that are spoken on a continuum in an area. The Datooga people have one of the lowest literacy rates in Tanzania, meaning there are very few written records of Datooga. There are about six different Datooga dialects, some so different that it can be hard for speakers of one dialect to understand speakers of another.

4. Digo

Another Bantu language, Digo is the tongue of the Digo people of Kenya and Tanzania. There are about 360,000 Digo today, most of whom speak Digo fluently. Digo speakers tend to be fluent as well in Swahili, as it is the lingua franca of the area and also very closely related to Digo. In fact, much of the Digo vocabulary is taken from Swahili. There are four main dialects of Digo spoken in different regions of Kenya and Tanzania.

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Category: Foreign Language

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