A Beginner’s Guide to Studying African Languages, Part 1: Bantu Languages

Map of Africa’s major language families. (source: um, imgur?)

I’m pretty happy with the wide range of languages I’ve managed to cover in my posts so far—from Spanish and Portuguese through Arabic and Hindi to Chinese and Indonesian— but there are still a few big gaps to fill, and none quite as big as (almost) the entire continent of Africa. No sub-Saharan African language made it into the top 10 native languages list, or is a dialect I grew up listening to, or was the language I used to name my blog, so here we are.

Now I’m going to try to fill in that gap. Over the past three years or so I’ve been devoting a significant portion of my language study time to various African languages, jumping from language to language around the continent wherever my interests take me, so I actually have quite a bit to write about.

I’m not going to claim to be fluent in any of these languages. Excluding European-based creoles like Cape Verdean and Afrikaans for now, and also not counting Arabic (though I’ll touch on those later), my strongest African language by far is Swahili, and I’ve been letting even that slip lately as I’ve been focusing more on other languages. (I did recently test into Level 7 of DuoLingo’s Swahili course though, so that’s… something.) My comprehension of Lingala used to be decent too but has gotten even more rusty. For most other African languages, my studies have generally only gotten to the point where I have an overall sense of the grammatical structure of the language and some common vocabulary, before I get distracted and move on to something else (there are just so many interesting languages to explore around here!).

In any case, throughout this process I’ve accumulated a pretty long list of books, websites and other resources with which I’ll be able to revisit some of these languages later on (the next time I free up a slot in my language-study rotation) and I think these resources might be of value to you as well if you ever want to learn an African language.

Since “African languages” is a really broad category, I’ll be splitting this into four parts based on language families:

  1. Bantu Languages
  2. Niger-Congo Languages (other than Bantu)
  3. Afro-Asiatic Languages
  4. Indo-European Languages and Creoles

(I don’t have anything to say about any Nilo-Saharan languages yet. Sorry.)

And here goes Part One:

Swahili

If I asked a random person to name one African language, the chances are pretty good that they’d say “Swahili” (although I’ve sometimes heard people say “Afrikaans” too, which… lol). Swahili has got to be the best known African language in the world by far —you probably already know that a safari is a voyage, Simba is a lion, and Rafiki is a friend. And hakuna matata means no worries for the rest of your days:

What a wonderful phrase… for illustrating the basic grammatical structure of Swahili.

Most speakers of Swahili speak it as a second language (it has 19 million native speakers vs. 91 million non-native speakers, per Ethnologue), and it’s been widely used as a trade language in East Africa for centuries. Sāḥil is “coast” in Arabic, and sawāḥil is the plural of that (Arabic plurals are funny), so Sawāḥiliyya, i.e. Swahili, is “the language of the coasts” of East Africa, which has been tied to Arabia and India via the monsoon trade (and later the British Empire) for millenia. Zanzibar, whose inhabitants are mostly native speakers of Swahili, was (at least technically) ruled by the Sultan of Oman until 1964.

Because of this history, Swahili is full of Arabic words — “to think” is kufikiri and “to understand” is kufahamu, from Arabic fikr and fahm. The Swahili words for “twenty,” “thirty,” “forty” and so on — ishirini, thelathini, arobaini… are all Arabic. And the Swahili word for “Europe” — Ulaya — comes from the Arabic word wilāyah which means “province”! (This usage seems to parallel the usage of vilayati in South Asia, where the Mughals once considered all foreign lands as merely a yet-to-be-conquered “outer province.”)

The Swahili Coast was a key part of the monsoon-based Indian Ocean trade routes

Swahili has also picked up words from other places along the Indian Ocean rim. From Persian bakht (“luck”), Swahili got the word bahati, which then produced the verb kubahatisha meaning “to try one’s luck.” Rangi (“color”), barafu (“ice”), and bandari (“port”) are all of Persian origin as well. From Hindi, Swahili got pesa for “money” (paysa in Hindi) — like in “M-Pesa,” the mobile money-transfer service — as well as the word gari for “car.” I’ve written a bit about Portuguese’s influence on Swahili before as well.

Swahili was the first African language I studied, and since I had already learned lots of Arabic, Persian, Hindi, and Portuguese before that, this made learning the vocabulary a bit easier. Being a trade language, Swahili’s phonology has also become simplified — unlike most Bantu languages (and African languages in general), Swahili does not have tones. These factors (in addition to the fact that it’s widely spoken) made Swahili a good choice as my first language to study.

At the same time, Swahili is still very much a Bantu language in terms of grammar, so I wasn’t missing out on anything in that department. It has an elaborate noun-class system that requires adjective and verb agreement. Things like subject pronoun, object pronoun, tense, negation and relative clause markers are all represented by various prefixes and infixes in front of the verb root, while concepts like passive voice, causation, and “doing something for someone” are all expressed by different derivational suffixes after the verb, resulting in lots of long words.

One good place to get started with Swahili is the Swahili grammar guide at Mwana Simba (it looks like the domain has expired, so I’m linking to an archived version). It’s very thorough and covers basically all there is to know about the grammatical structure of Swahili, and includes vocabulary lists and exercises.

Another textbook I used early on was Swahili: A Foundation for Speaking, Reading, and Writing. And after that, I somehow managed to get my hands on a series of Russian-language Swahili textbooks that I found to be better (more systematic and more logically presented) than any of the English material out there:

(Sorry if you don’t speak Russian. Another good English-language book for intermediate-level learners is Masomo ya Kisasa: Contemporary Readings in Swahili.)

These days, to keep my Swahili from slipping away even more than it already has, I try to listen to Deutsche Welle’s Swahili broadcasts (three one-hour broadcasts a day!) at least once a week, and my comprehension tends to hover around 50 percent.

Swahili is continuing to gain in importance in East Africa thanks to the economic power of Kenya and Tanzania. Earlier this year, Rwanda made Swahili its fourth official language, after Kinyarwanda, French and English. Swahili is also widely spoken in the eastern half of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and seems to be expanding there as well, where it’s pushing up against the next language here:

Lingala

Along with French and Swahili, Lingala is one of the major lingua francas of the DRC, and is also spoken widely in the Republic of Congo. In the DRC — one of the world’s most linguistically-diverse nations — Lingala has long been the main language of the armed forces as well as of popular music.

Here’s a Lingala phrase you might have heard of, which was coined when Muhammad Ali faced George Foreman in “the Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa in 1974:

The phrase “boma ye” literally means “kill him” and has since made its way into various other corners of pop culture. But let’s take a look at the grammar here for a second: “ye” represents the direct object “him,” and while putting it after the verb seems totally normal to English speakers, it is not very typical for a Bantu language. For example “kill him” in would be kumwua in Swahili and mbulale in Xhosa — in both cases, the m-like prefix/infix is the part that represents “him.”

This is one of the many ways in which Lingala has been grammatically simplified in relation to other Bantu languages. Compared to Swahili, for example, Lingala has fewer noun classes, less noun-class agreement, fewer verb tenses, no separate negative conjugations for verbs, and so on.

This is likely due to Lingala’s history as an inter-ethnic lingua franca among different Bantu groups that was promoted under Belgian colonial rule, when Lingala first became the primary language of the armed forces and had a significant role in colonial administration.

The best place to get started with Lingala is probably the Foreign Service Institute (FSI)’s Lingala Basic Course, which comes with audio on their website. The FSI website is a great source for U.S-government-produced public-domain textbooks for a wide range of languages, and I’ll refer to it many more times over the course of this series.

Lingala also has a noticeable presence in Europe these days. I had been dabbling in Lingala for a few months (and gotten halfway through the FSI book) when I visited France and Belgium two years ago, and I encountered quite a bit of Lingala when I was there. In Paris I saw a few Lingala storefronts in the “sensitive urban zone” (i.e. one of Fox News’ “no-go zones”) of Goutte-d’Or:

A photo I took on the street in Goutte-d’Or, 18th Arrondissement, Paris in 2014. The sign on the left says in Lingala: “kolia kitoko/talo malamu/biloko ya mboka ya sika” (“delicious food/good prices/new national (i.e. Congolese) products”)

In Brussels, capital of the DRC’s former colonial rulers, I heard people speaking Lingala all over the place, especially in the Matongé neighborhood in Ixelles.

A fresco by Congolese painter Chéri Samba in Matongé, Brussels. The blue text in the middle is in “Lingala” (actually mixed French/Lingala) — “eza” means “is” (short for “ezali”)

I even got a chance to speak Lingala with some people at a language exchange event in Brussels! I did not speak it very well, objectively speaking—I managed to say Nayebi te nakoki koloba nini (“I don’t know what I can say”) and a few other basic things — but the Lingala speakers thought it was great.

If you want to go further with Lingala, you should probably know French first. Most other materials for learning Lingala are only available in French, and you’re much more likely to encounter Lingala speakers in French-speaking places (whether it’s in the Congos or in Belgium or France), and Lingala speakers tend to code-switch a lot between Lingala and French.

For example, here’s another online Lingala course in French. (Unfortunately it looks like this is also an expired domain, and the archived version doesn’t have working audio links.) The first ten lessons of this are also available in Spanish if that’s more your thing. And here’s a Lingala-French/French-Lingala dictionary to help with independent study.

For listening material in Lingala, you can check out Radio Okapi (run by the UN Peacekeeping Mission in the DRC) as well as a large number of YouTube channels such as Lingala Facile and Elengi ya Congo. (Click through the “Related Channels” — it’s an endless internet rabbit-hole of Lingala-language content, usually mixed very liberally with French.)

Lingala also pops up in French popular music every once in a while these days, such as this random song that showed up in my French playlist on Spotify yesterday:

The lyrics are mostly French, but have Lingala words like “bebe na ngai”=”my baby”, “libala”=”marriage”, and “soolo”=”really, truly”

Xhosa (& Zulu)

When I decided to take a look at the southern Bantu languages, it took me a while to decide whether I wanted to do Xhosa or Zulu, which are pretty closely related to each other. For example, you may have heard of the word Ubuntu (either as an operating system or a philosophical concept), which means “humanity” in both languages.

I ultimately decided to do Xhosa, for a few reasons:

  1. Xhosa-speaking areas have more overlap with Afrikaans-speaking areas (e.g. in the Eastern and Western Cape) than Zulu does, and I was also learning Afrikaans (a.k.a. unlearning Dutch) around the same time.
  2. Although both Zulu and Xhosa have plenty of click sounds, only Xhosa has a xhlick in the name of the language itself. So when I told people I was studying Xhosa, I could blow their minds immediately without having to go into further detail!
This is basically how this whole series got started.

Everyone wants me to talk about the clicks, so fine, I’ll talk about the clicks first. Here’s me saying “I only understand a little Xhosa” in Xhosa:

Ndiyaqonda isiXhosa kancinci nje. (My intonation might be a bit off.)

This is one of the handful of Xhosa sentences I can still remember off the top of my head, and what I really like about it (besides the fact that it’s factually true) is that it demonstrates several different kinds of clicks:

  • q is a “postalveolar” click— press the tip of your tongue against your palate, suck out the air between your tongue and the roof of your mouth, and pull your tongue off quickly. It’s the sound you might make to imitate the sound of a horse trotting.
  • x is a “lateral” click— for this one, keep the tip of your tongue in place and click with the sides of your tongue instead. xh is like x, but with an extra puff of air afterwards (it helps to exaggerate the puff at first, or to literally just add an “h”).
  • c is a “dental” click — this is basically the “tsk tsk” sound people make to show disapproval. nc is like that but nasalized as well — not n followed by c, but more like n and c pronounced together.

So Xhosa not only has three different click positions, but also an aspirated, a nasalized, and a voiced (not shown in this example) click for each position — resulting in a total of twelve different click sounds to distinguish.

Grammatical breakdown of “ndiyaqonda isiXhosa kancinci nje.” (correction: “speak” should be “understand” — I’ll have a new graphic up in a bit)

Clicks are fun to do once you get the hang of it. But after studying the language a bit more (I got to lesson nine of Teach Yourself Xhosa and read through Molo: The Easy Xhosa Grammar Book), I realized there’s a whole lot more to Xhosa than the clicks. For example, here is the first stanza of the South African national anthem in Xhosa*:

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo,
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.

Not a single click to be found. (*The third and fourth line of the anthem are officially meant to be Zulu, but I double-checked them against the full Xhosa translation and they are exactly the same anyway — I guess that shows how similar Xhosa and Zulu are sometimes.)

In terms of phonology, Xhosa also features the Welsh ll sound, a voiced version of that sound, a three-way plain-aspirated-voiced consonant system that’s similar to Wu Chinese, vowel length distinctions, and rising and falling tones. The tones and the long vowels in particular give the language a very pleasant rhythm and cadence, quite different from Swahili or Lingala.

If you want to hear more of what Xhosa sounds like, here are several hundred episodes’ worth of podcasts you can check out: https://iono.fm/language/xh.

By the way, if you really want to learn a “click language,” you might want to check out something like the Khoekhoe/Nama/Damara/Hottentot language of Namibia:

“!” is Xhosa “q”, “||” is Xhosa “x”, “|” is Xhosa “c”, and “ǂ” has no Xhosa equivalent (I think it’s a bit like “q” but using the flat surface of your tongue instead of the tip).

Most Bantu languages don’t have clicks, and languages like Khoekhoe are where Zulu and Xhosa got their clicks from, mostly through loan-words and some onomatopoeia. I think this helps explain the uneven distribution of clicks in Xhosa — you can have several sentences without a single click in them, but you can also have something like Seleqabele gqithapha nguqongqothwane (“He has passed by up the steep hill, the knocking beetle”):

Kirundi (& Kinyarwanda)

Like Xhosa and Zulu, Kinyarwanda (spoken in Rwanda) and Kirundi (spoken in Burundi) are very closely related to each other, and I faced a similar dilemma when choosing which one to look at first.

In the end, the decision was made for me by the availability of learning material. The FSI website has material for Kirundi but nothing for Kinyarwanda.

Map of the stages of Bantu expansion across southern Africa. The second map shows that the Great Lakes region (Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, etc.) was a major center for outwards migration.

Kirundi struck me as being oddly similar to Xhosa in a number of ways (but without clicks, of course). The most noticeable similarity (and the only one I can still remember right now) is that Xhosa and Kirundi both tend to start words with vowels a lot more than Swahili and Lingala do. For example the word for “human being” is m-tu in Swahili and mo-to in Lingala, but um-nthu in Xhosa and umu-ntu in Kirundi. Similarly in the plural, the word for “human beings” is wa-tu in Swahili and ba-to in Lingala, but aba-nthu in Xhosa and aba-ntu in Kirundi. (This is where the term “Bantu languages” comes from, by the way.)

I think these similarities have something to do with the history of Bantu expansion — specifically, the predecessors of modern Zulu and Xhosa speakers migrated from the Great Lakes region to South Africa at a relatively recent date.

I did not get very far in Kirundi — I got to around Lesson 8 of the FSI book before dropping it. On the one hand, I felt that I should be spending more time focusing on Swahili, and on the other hand my curiosity was already wandering towards the languages of West Africa. Nevertheless, what I did learn about Kirundi definitely helped me get a better understanding of the Bantu languages as a whole and their relationship to each other.

The other Bantu languages I’ve looked at have all been a bit “weird” — Swahili because of its heavy Arabic influence, Lingala because it’s a colonial pidgin, and Xhosa because of its clicks and other odd sounds. On the other hand, Kirundi seemed pretty “average” and helped tie the other languages together, in a way. Kirundi was the extra data point I needed to be able to start doing some basic comparative analysis between different Bantu languages.

For example, the world for “road” is njia in Swahili, nzela in Lingala, indlela in Xhosa, and inzira in Kirundi — here you can see how Swahili drops “L”s between vowels and Kirundi turns them into “R”s. Something similar happens with the word for “rain”, which is mvua in Swahili, mbula in Lingala, imvula in Xhosa, and imvura in Kirundi.

And now I really want to start doing Bantu languages again…. Oops. Maybe I’ll have to make some time for it in a few months.

Other Bantu Languages

The FSI website has textbooks for a number of other less-studied African languages, including the following Bantu ones:

  • Kituba, another language of the Congos, also known as Munukutuba (“I speak”) or Kikongo ya Leta (“Kikongo of the State” — Leta is from French l’état), is a creole language based on Kikongo which is used in state administration. The parent language, Kikongo, is spoken not only in the two Congos but also northern Angola (basically the old Kingdom of Kongo). I’ve briefly skimmed the first few lessons of the FSI book, and it’s kind of fascinating to see a creole language with a non-European source language.
  • Luganda, spoken in Uganda. One of the more notable features of this language is its use of doubled consonants — which you may have seen in the Ugandan place-name Entebbe, for example. Being in the same Great Lakes region as Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, its grammar and vocabulary seem to have a lot in common with those languages.
  • Chinyanja, spoken in Zambia and Malawi, also known as Chichewa. The Chewa are an ethnic group that speak this language, but people from other groups speak it as well, so sometimes Chinyanja (“lake language” — referring to Lake Malawi) is the preferred term because it’s ethnically neutral. (The “chi-” is the same as “ki-” in Kiswahili and the “isi-” in isiXhosa.)
  • Shona, spoken in Zimbabwe, is the Bantu language with the most native speakers.

I haven’t studied at any of these at all, but if you want to, now you know where to find materials for them.

So that’s it for Bantu. Next time (probably not the very next article — I’ll be interspersing this series with other content) I’ll be taking a look at various Niger-Congo languages of West Africa, which are distant relatives of Bantu.