The world marks Kiswahili Language Day

Today, Thursday, July 7 marks the first annual celebration of World Kiswahili Language day.

Different translations of the Swahili word Jambo mean Hello in English. /UNESCO

In November 2021, The United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) adopted a declaration that recognized the role the Kiswahili language plays in promoting cultural diversity, creating awareness, and fostering dialogue among civilizations.  The declaration also noted the need to promote multilingualism as a core value of the United Nations and an essential factor in harmonious communication between peoples. Kiswahili is the first African language to be recognized in such a manner by the UN.

Kiswahili is among the 10 most widely spoken languages globally. At least 200 million people speak Kiswahili. It is one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa and the most widely spoken in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is now an official language of the African Union as well as in the countries of Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania.

In 2018, South African opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema appealed for the adoption of Kiswahili as Africa’s common language. At a media briefing, Malema said “we must develop a common language that can be used throughout the continent. Like Swahili, if it can be developed as the language of the continent.”

Kiswahili takes around 40 percent of its vocabulary directly from Arabic. But its core origins can be traced back to Bantu languages spoken along the coast of east Africa. Under Arab influence, Swahili originated as a lingua franca used by several closely related Bantu-speaking tribal groups.

It was then formalised under the German and British colonial regimes in the region in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, as a language of administration and education.

Image by UNESCO

Presently, Kiswahili is now an integral part of programming in a number of media companies around the world, including the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, Radio France International, Radio China, Radio Tehran, and others.

Kiswahili has also found a home as a language and as an area of study in many universities in Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Asia.

Kiswahili is the only African language within the Directorate of Global Communications at the United Nations.

The United Nations General Assembly, through its resolution 71/328 of 11 September 2017, on multilingualism, welcomed the implementation of a day dedicated to each of its official languages in order to inform and raise awareness of their history, culture, and use, and encouraged the Secretary-General and institutions such as UNESCO to consider extending this important initiative to other non-official languages spoken throughout the world.