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The Language of Nairobi: Decoding the Fascinating Language Jigsaw of Nairobi

Nairobi is the administrative and capital city of Kenya.

It is where the cultures and languages of the forty four ethnic communities of Kenya converge to bring out a sense of nationalism.

Kiswahili is the national language of Kenya and is spoken literally in all corners of the country while English is the official language and is mostly used in national addresses by government officials and in the corporate corridors.

The Most Common Language in Nairobi

Kiswahili and English are the most commonly spoken languages in Nairobi.

They are the lingua francas of the Kenyan capital that brings together all the ethnic groups in the country.

The language also enables locals to communicate effectively with their counterparts from Eastern and Southern Africa who live and work in the city.

The Swahili language was originally spoken in the coastal regions of Kenya and Tanzania before spreading into the hinterland of East Africa.

Today it’s spoken in several countries including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, South Sudan, Malawi, Mozambique, Yemen and Oman.

It was created out of the interaction between the Bantu inhabitants of the East African coast and Arab traders.

The two trading sides needed a common language to ease communication between them and facilitate seamless transaction of business.

So it is true to say that the Swahili language is a blend of local Bantu languages and Arabic as it borrows many words from both languages.

Sheng: The Mixed Language of Nairobi

Sheng is a street slang language that is very popular among Nairobians.

It was born out of a mix of Kenya’s national language Swahili, English which is the official language and some words from the local dialects such as Kikuyu, Kikamba, Luo and Luhya.

The street slang language is said to have emerged from the slum areas of Nairobi’s Eastlands where the city’s poorest folks live.

 It then spread to the rest of the city and the country as time went by.

Sheng gained popularity in Nairobi and Kenya at large in the early 2000s because it was the major language used to compose the lyrics of local Kenyan music known as Genge and Kapuka.

Kenyan artistes played a critical role in coining new Sheng terminologies that would gain overnight popularity and spread across the country like wildfire.

Today, the language is deeply ingrained in the urban populations of Kenya and is commonly used in commercial adverts, political campaigns, television and radio shows and even in normal conversations among Nairobians.

Other Languages Commonly Spoken in Nairobi

Besides Swahili, Sheng and English the other commonly spoken languages in Nairobi include Kikuyu, Kikamba, Luo, Luhya, Somali and Indian-Gujarati languages.

That is because of the large urban populations of the Kikuyu, Kamba, Somali, Luo, Luhya and Kenyan-Indians who live and work in Nairobi.

Somali populations in Nairobi are dominant in Eastleigh and South B areas where they run businesses and live.

Somali language is commonly spoken alongside Swahili in those areas.

Kenyan-Indians are said to have come to Kenya as railway construction workers before they finally settled in Nairobi.

 They reside and work mainly in Parklands, Ngara, Westlands, Industrial Area and Nairobi CBD where they run businesses and others work as corporate officers.

Their main language is Gujarati and is the main language used in their socio-cultural functions such as temple sermons.

Kikuyus are also business people mostly operating micro and small businesses and public transport vehicles in Nairobi. They come from the neighboring Kiambu and Murang’a Counties.

Kambas are mainly found in Eastlands and Mombasa road areas and a vast majority work in Industrial Area and along Mombasa road.

Their large population in Nairobi is explained by the proximity of their home counties of Machakos, Makueni and Kitui to Nairobi.

What Roles Does English Play in Language Use in Nairobi?

The English language was introduced to Kenya by British Missionaries and colonialists in the 1800s.

It was later adopted at independence as the official language in Kenya alongside Swahili which is the national language.

English is taught in Kenyan schools as a second language and is regarded as the main business, communication, education and workplace language in Nairobi and the rest of Kenya.

English language proficiency is considered a major requirement for locals and expatriates who wish to find formal jobs in Nairobi and Kenya by extension.

 It also gives many Nairobi residents an upper hand when applying for jobs in the UK, Australia, the US and Canada.

How Language Usage Differ Between Nairobi and Other Towns in Kenya

Whereas English, Swahili and Sheng are the most commonly spoken languages in Nairobi, the dominant languages in other Kenyan towns are mainly determined by the ethnic community that is dominant in that particular area.

For instance, in the North Eastern region of Kenya where Garissa, Wajir and Mandera towns lie, the common dialect is the Somali language because Somalis are the dominant tribe in the region.

In the coastal towns of Mombasa, Ukunda, Malindi, Kilifi and Lamu, the dominant language is Kiswahili which originated from the interaction of the Mijikenda tribes and Arabs.

In the South Eastern region of Kenya, the main towns are Machakos, Wote, Kitui and Mwingi where the Kamba language is commonly spoken.

Central Kenya towns of Nyeri, Kiambu, Muranga and Nyahururu are inhabited by Kikuyus and the mainly spoken language is KIkuyu.

In the Lakeside towns of Kisumu, Migori, Homa Bay, and Siaya, the Luo language dominates while in the Rift Valley towns of Kericho, Bomet, Baringo, Nakuru, Kapsabet, Eldoret, Kapenguria and Kitale, the Kalenjin language is strongly established.

 Kisii language is dominant in Nyamira and Kisii towns while Luhya is the most common dialect in Kakamega, Busia, Vihiga, Bungoma and Transnzoia towns of Western Kenya.

Language-related Challenges Faced by Non-native speakers living in Nairobi

Non-native speakers living, working or visiting Nairobi may face challenges communicating and socializing with locals if they do not speak either English or Kiswahili.

They may also face serious challenges at work, significantly affecting their service delivery, and consequently, curtail their attainment of key performance indicators.

In some instances, the services of a language translator may be necessary especially at work or when visiting tourist destinations.

How Language Influence the Cultural Dynamics and Interactions in Nairobi

Most Nairobians speak their ethnic languages as their first language.

Fortunately, due to high literacy levels thanks to easy access to education, the majority of Nairobians also understand English and Kiswahili.

This makes Nairobi a multi-lingual city where many language speakers live, work and interact every day.

Kiswahili is regarded as the national language of Kenya and is fronted as the language of national unity because it fosters a sense of nationalism among Nairobians and Kenyans from all walks of life.

Kiswahili helps Nairobians from different ethnic backgrounds to interact, socialize and do business with each other.

It is also worth noting that a sizable portion of Nairobian also speak foreign languages like German, Arabic, French and Spanish.

 Knowledge of these languages enables them to secure jobs abroad and socialize with foreigners from the countries where those languages are spoken.

Kenyalogue Contributor


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