Skip to main content

AU Nairobi | Languages

picture of au nairobi students with program staff and kenyans

‘Jambo’, is what you are most likely to hear if you look like a foreigner. Down the road, however, after you get a grasp of Kiswahili, you will discover the proper greetings ‘Hujambo,’ or ‘Hamjambo’ if there are more of you. Or a host of other greetings, some slang, depending on what part of Nairobi or Kenya you are in and who you are hanging out with. That is the dynamism of Kiswahili language. And Kiswahili is only one of the few dozen languages spoken in Kenya. Forty-two is the official number. More if you take dialects into account. One language alone, Luhya, is constituted by sixteen dialects. Yet, despite having these many languages, a foreigner can get around Kenya with relative ease by speaking English, or Kiswahili.

picture of a male and female pair of nairobi residents smiling with sunglasses on

But, not quite so easily… the average Kenyan with a high school education speaks at least three languages; English, Kiswahili, and their mother tongue. Frequently, and unconsciously, many people use all the three languages simultaneously in a conversation. A sentence would start in English and down the road, wanders off into some other language before finding its way back to English. Or not. Do not be surprised if a conversation you thought you are a part of winds up in another language. You will understand if you speak more than one language, that sometimes it is a lot easier for people to express particular concepts in one language better than another. Often too, folks speaking English fluently would use non-English affixes and words in a conversation. This might happen in a formal conversation as well, like briefing sessions in your internship, lectures during field trips, and classes you may be taking in our partner institutions.

picture of au nairobi students and some orientation helpers from nairobi standing in a large group

American English is only one of the versions spoken around the world. You will attune your ear to the version spoken here. Kenyan public schools are taught in the British version of English. Infuse that with influence of local languages and you have a version of Kenyan English that takes good listening to understand. Be cognitive of the fact you too speak with an accent that may not be familiar. On the same token, Kenyan English, as with American or any other version spoken around the world, has culture-specific expressions and dictum. When you make an acquaintance with a Kenyan, and exchange phone numbers, you will likely be asked to 'flash' them, meaning, call their phone to confirm you have the correct number. You are best served asking for clarification rather than making assumption. It is all a part of the experience.

picture of three kenyan children playing with each other outside
Kenyan children will love to greet you in English!