Languages of Kenya

Languages of Kenya

Kenya is a multilingual country. The Bantu Swahili language and English are widely spoken as lingua franca, and are the two official languages.

According to Ethnologue, there are a total of 69 languages spoken in Kenya. This variety is a reflection of the country's diverse population that includes most major ethnic, racial and linguistic groups found in Africa (see Languages of Africa).

The two major language families spoken in Kenya are the Bantu and the Nilotic groups. There is also a Cushitic minority, besides Arab, Hindustani and British immigrants.

SIL Ethnologue (2009) reports the largest communities of native speakers in Kenya as follows:

  • Bantu
    • Kikuyu 7.18 million
    • Kamba 3.96 million
    • Ekegusii 2.12 million (2006)
    • Kimîîru 1.74 million
    • Oluluyia (listed as a "macrolanguage") > 1 million
    • Kigiryama 0.62 million (1994)
    • Kiembu 0.43 million (1994)
  • Nilotic
    • Dholuo 4.27 million
    • Kalenjin (listed as a "macrolanguage") > 1.5 million
    • Maasai 0.69 million
    • Turkana 0.45 million (2006)


Kenya is a country where multilingualism is profoundly practiced.

Next to over fifty indigenous languages and dialects, neither Swahili nor English, both official languages, can be considered a true lingua franca of Kenya. Swahili is also the national language while English is the international language, an otherwise common situation compared to the rest of the world.

Not everyone in Kenya can speak Swahili or English. In everyday communication, most people prefer using their mother tongue. People living along the coast speak better Swahili than people living in central highlands of Kenya. This can be attributed to the fact that some primary schools in Kenya (especially those in very rural Kikuyu land), teach vernacular in lower grades (1,2,3) and pupils are tested on it. The reason why they are taught vernacular is because all* the pupils come from surrounding regions and speak the same dialect.This is not the case with every school in Kenya. On the other hand, schools in western, Northern, and South Kenya don't do that normally because there are pupils who have different dialects and therefore not possible to teach the regional dialect. This could be the underlying factor of why people in Western and Coastal Kenya speak Swahili more fluently than any other part of the country.

There are forty different tribes in Kenya today and approximately the same number of dialects. Most of them are confined to specific regions. e.g., Kikuyu in central Kenya, Luo in western and Nyanza, Kamba in eastern and so on.

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