IYIP Blog: How good is your Swa…English? Put your language skills to the test with these loanwords.

Did you ever play Jenga when you were a kid? Have you ever advertised or searched for something on Kijiji? Would you have been able to sit through The Lion King without rolling your eyes if there had been characters named “Lion” and “Friend”instead of cool, exotic-sounding ones like Simba and Rafiki? Did you know that you don’t actually have to come all the way to Africa to go on a safari?

I love languages, and one of the things I love most is that words from one language somehow find their way into the vocabulary of another. No, they don’t run away. They aren’t stolen, either. We call them loanwords, or borrowings. If a word is lucky and the group of people who borrowed it reaches a subconscious consensus, changes start happening to the word and it slowly starts to seem like it really does belong in its adoptive language.

Jenga, a great game with a strange name. Who knew Swahili popped up in so often in childhood?

Confused? Let me see what I can do…

Spaghetti, in Italian, is the plural form of spaghetto, but in English, spaghetti is a mass noun – you can’t count it and you don’t pluralize it (like rice, flour, salt, etc.). In Quebec, spaghetti is not a mass noun, it’s been pluralized, Francophone-style, so it’s des spaghettis. In Quebec, sushi is not a mass noun, it’s been pluralized, Francophone-style, so it’s des sushis. Woah, that sentence was such a déjà-vu!

That, my rafiki, is true integration. And what more could a borrowed word ask for? (If only it were as simple for people to integrate!)

Who does not remember the Lion King!?!?!

Well, let me tell you, Swahili, like English, is no stranger to loanwords – shule looks rather German, don’t you think? Oh, and if you stay in Tanzania long enough to get tired of eating ugali and rice, be sure to ask for supageti when you go to the shop looking to satisfy your Western craving!

Okay, I think you get the picture. Time for the fun stuff! According to the blog-writing tips that I’ve been checking out, people love lists. So check out this list of words in Swahili and do your best to figure out their English counterparts. If you’re really sharp and get the last two, my hat’s off to you, because they’re much more difficult to guess out of context.

Helpful hint: Read them out loud as you try to guess – Swahili words are pronounced exactly as they’re spelled.

  1. kompyuta
  2. picha
  3. baiskeli
  4. lifti
  5. daktari
  6. kalenda
  7. namba
  8. kodi
  9. wiki
  10.  karoti
  11. ofisi
  12. akaunti
  13. koti
  14. geti
  15. sigara
  16. kwaya
  17. pancha
  18. betri
  19. bia
  20. reli
  21. biki
  22. simu


1. computer  2. picture  3. bicycle  4. lift  5. doctor  6. calendar  7. number  8. code  9. week  10. carrot  11. office  12. account  13. coat  14. gate  15. cigarette  16. choir  17. puncture (flat tire)  18. battery  19. beer  20. rail (railway)  21. pen (from Bic pens)  22. cell phone (your phone has a sim card, doesn’t it?)

Check your score:

  •  If you got 20 or more correct, you either cheated or you’ve been to Tanzania before. But good job!
  •  If you got between 16 and 19 correct, congratulations, you’re very clever and you’ll probably be able to write Swahili soon!
  • If you got between 11 and 15 correct, you’ve done a good job, but you probably let yourself get distracted by the spelling of some of the words.If you got fewer than 10 correct, you should be ashamed of yourself for thinking you were too cool to follow my instructions. Try again, reading aloud!

Translations for the words in the intro paragraph:

jenga = building, kijiji = village, simba = lion, rafiki = friend, safari = journey/trip

-Elena Togias, Education Officer, CIDA International Youth Internship Program, Tanzania 2012


Kiswahili Na Mimi- Swahili and Me!

In Morogoro you can easily learn new Swahili words with a little bit of effort.

Languages have always interested me. When I as little I learned Spanish from my parents. It is also because of them that I can speak French. When they first came to Canada they thought that everybody spoke both  English and French and not wanting their children to be at a disadvantage, they put us all in French school. I was fortunate enough to be admitted into a French first language school, and I can now proudly say that I am trilingual! Since learning French, I have not attempted nor had the opportunity to learn a new language…until now.

Since my arrival in Tanzania, I have been able to learn a little Swahili everyday, albeit very slowly! The learning started during the first day of YCI Orientation. We learned common phrases and words that could be useful to us in everyday life. To me, these Swahili lessons were the best part of orientation and once I got to Morogoro, I was able to put my learning to the test!

I am always eager to learn new words  in Swahili. Whether it be sitting around watching a movie with my homestay family or having a conversation with the local volunteers, there are a number of opportunities each day to learn the language. And I have found that Tanzanians are just as happy to teach you new words if they see you trying! I think they really appreciate the effort, and the people who attend our sessions always seem equally surprised and pleased when they hear us foreigners say the few phrases we know in Swahili! Whenever possible I try to slip in a few words that I know in Swahili into my conversations with Tanzanians. The response is almost always the same: a big smile and a few chuckles!

-Linda Marroquin-Ponce, Youth  Ambassador, Tanzania 2012

YCI is currently recruiting a volunteer team for Tanzania. Click HERE for details on our 8-week fall project. 

Found in Translation

It was the first time in years that my travels didn’t include a Mountain Equipment backpack, moldy shower curtains and sleeping on the couches of friends or near strangers. No, this trip would be in style. It would be all-inclusive, first-class and luggage with wheels. It would be a pair of white high heels instead of cement-covered shoes, and chartered buses instead of hitchhiking. There would be hot compresses on the plane, and magazines in my carry-on instead of burdensome travel guides. I was headed to the Dominican Republic for a weeklong Thanksgiving vacation with my cousin and two friends.

Apart from nearly getting hit by Hurricane Omar, the week was amazing. We were one of the few groups of Canadians at the resort, but that didn’t prevent us from making friends. On our second night in Punta Cana, we were walking to the club when an energetic girl ran up behind us to tag along. Sveta was on vacation alone, so we were more than happy to let her join our entourage for the night.

In turn, she introduced us to two fellow Russians she has also befriended at the resort. Both were in their mid-twenties and police officers back in Russian. The only problem? Unlike Sveta, neither Dima nor Anton spoke a word of English.



But for our group, it was a non-issue. A napkin was unfolded across the table, and pens were pulled out. Maps were drawn and names were written. It was hands-down the best game of pictionary that I’ve played in years. In the end, we spent three days hanging out with Dima and Anton. When a pen and paper weren’t handy, we’d draw in the sand or play pseudo games of charades. We’d search for common words and teach each other the names of basic nouns. “песок,” Anton said, pouring sand from his hand back to the ground. (And yes, as it turns out, vodka sounds roughly the same in both languages.)

I couldn’t help but think of my early days in Vanuatu, when I didn’t know the language and struggled to make myself understood, and to understand. I knew the language would come in time, but in the meantime I had to find a way to connect with people that didn’t involve words.

The skills of cross-cultural communication are the kind that you never lose, although they definitely need to be adapted to the context and the culture. It takes patience and perseverance, but most importantly, it takes a sense of openness. My own volunteer experience with Youth Challenge International definitely equipped me with these skills. I may not have packed carabineers, tarps or a medical kit for my latest trip, but I still brought along a sense of adventure and the desire to learn.

-Jessica Lockhart, International Programs Coordinator