Could the language become a lingua franca for the continent?

One of Africa’s most widely recognised languages, Swahili – also known as Kiswahili – will be taught in South African classrooms from 2020, reports Deutsche Welle. The move hopes to promote greater social cohesion among Africans, as well as offer more opportunities to Swahili speakers from East African countries.

The South African Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, made the announcement in September.  Until now, there were 15 non-official languages offered as optional subjects, including French, German and Mandarin, but no African language, she told Sowetan Live.

Swahili is an official language in Kenya, Rwanda, DR Congo, Uganda and Tanzania. It is also one of the official languages of the African Union (AU).

South African politician and leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema, recently called for Swahili to become Africa’s common language. “Swahili has the power to expand to countries that never spoke it and it has the power to bring Africans together,” Malema said.

Many Swahili speakers and South Africans alike are excited at the prospect of the language spreading further across the continent. “We hope [the teaching of Swahili in South African schools] will allow us to talk to lots of people from lots of different countries and share more things with them in the future,” said Laurent Daphne, a student from DR Congo.

Others believe the government should be spending its money elsewhere if it wants to help the younger generation, considering for instance the high levels of unemployment in the country.

Meanwhile, Sipho Mutema, a teacher in Johannesburg, thinks an increase in the number of Swahili speakers could help combat the increase in xenophobic violence across South Africa.

 1008 Swahili
The Swahili phrase made famous by Disney’s The Lion King, meaning “no worries” or “there are no problems.” Image: CC 2015

Malema’s remarks came just months after Twitter officially recognised Swahili, making it the first African language to be supported by the social networking site, according to Nigeria’s pulse.ng.

In early 2017, Rwanda also joined the bandwagon and officially adopted Swahili as one of its official languages.

The use of Swahili is spreading from eastern to southern, western and northern Africa, according to Dr. Peter Mose of Rhodes University, writing for The Conversation. Currently, however, none of these countries teach Kiswahili as a subject; instead, it is generally a language of trade and inter-ethnic communication.

However, it may not be long until more countries join South Africa in teaching Kiswahili in classrooms, since it is becoming a household language in many countries, in addition to its adoption by the AU.

Kiswahili is also a popular research subject at South African universities, and is studied outside Africa, particularly in the US and Europe, pointing to its growing international significance.

Among the many benefits of teaching Kiswahili is the fact that it will be an easy language for South Africans to learn compared to foreign languages from outside Africa, since it shares Bantu origins with languages like Xhosa, Zulu and Ndebele.

Besides, learning Kiswahili will prepare South African pupils for rich interactions in trade, academia and ordinary daily life elsewhere on the continent, Dr. Mose writes.

South Africa needs to invest in textbooks, curriculum experts and researchers who can help guide the policy around Kiswahili, he noted. There may be a struggle to find qualified teachers, but the country look to places like Kenya and Tanzania, which graduate tens of thousands of teachers annually who cannot find work in their home countries.

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