The Republic of Kenya is an eastern African country which harbors one of the most multiethnic, varied cultural landscapes in all of Africa. With a population of some 50 million people, around 17 million of them speak Swahili at varying levels of proficiency. Swahili, along with English, is one of the country’s two official languages.

Due to its widespread usage and pervasiveness, Swahili is considered the lingua franca of southeastern Africa. It is the official language in the African Union as well as the East African Community. Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, is a member of the Niger-Congo family of languages, particularly the Bantu subdivision. There are many different varieties of Swahili which are all mutually intelligible with one another, with the Kimvita dialect as one of the most likely ones to be heard in Kenya. Other dialects of Swahili include Kivumba and Mambrui. Kimvita is native to Mombasa, while Kivumba and Mambrui are native to the southern coast and Malindi, respectively. A government body called “Chama cha Kiswahili cha Taifa”, which is based in Nairobi, regulates the use of Swahili in Kenya.

The influence of English in Kenya is a result of the country’s history of being under British colonial rule. Kenya was a colony under British rule from the late 1800s until the 1960s, when it gained independence and became a sovereign state. However, the British left a lasting impact on the country which is manifested through their language as well. It is estimated that around 2.7 million people speak English with some level of proficiency in today’s Kenya. Few native speakers reside in the country, most of whom are English or US expatriates.

The other languages of Kenya include many other indigenous tongues which are spoken more regionally and actually have more speakers than English, despite the latter’s official status in the country. It is estimated that there are around 70 languages spoken in Kenya today, which include languages from the Niger-Congo group such as Kikuyu or Gikuyu and Oluluyia at 6.6 and 5.2 million speakers, respectively, as well as languages from the Nilo-Saharan family, such as Dholuo with around 4 million speakers and Kalenjin at around 5 million. Luhya is another major regional language which can be found in Kenya with an estimated 1.2 million speakers. The Luhya language is native to the Luhya ethnic group which is predominantly inhabiting the western parts of the country. Six main dialects of Luhya exist, and these are: Marama, Kabras, Tsotso, Hanga, Kiso, and East Nyala.

Languages from the Afroasiatic family can also be found in some parts of the country, such as Somali with more than 2 million speakers, Arabic and Hindi. The presence of Arabic in the country and its influence on the Swahili language is a result of the Arabic having conducted trade in Swahili for centuries, and so many of the Swahili-speaking people were historically Muslim. Today, it is estimated that around 15,000 people in Kenya speak Arabic. Most of the Arabic speakers come from North Africa. Hindi is also spoken within Kenya to some degree, with around 6,000 people who speak this language in Kenya today.


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