Swahili is one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa and it's the single most commonly spoken language in the world that has its origin on the African continent.
There are many good reasons to learn Swahili. It'll allow you to communicate with people from the wide range of African countries where Swahili is spoken today. But like it's the case with any language, Swahili will demand a lot of effort and time before you can call yourself fluent.
But how long exactly?
It could take a year or a decade for you to learn Swahili. It depends on a lot of things other than the difficulty of the language itself, such as the level you're aiming for, the time you put in, your experience, motivation, and how consistently you study. An average person who studies an hour a day consistently will probably be able to speak Swahili at an intermediary level after about three years.
The Things About Swahili That Might Take Some Time
Okay, let's start with some good news: Swahili is not a difficult language!
This doesn't mean, however, that you can learn it from playing around with an app for 30 days. Like it's the case with any language, learning Swahili is a serious commitment that might take years, depending on a number of factors.
If we look at the language itself (as one of the more important factors) many aspects of Swahili are simple. For one thing, it's written with a version of the Latin alphabet which is completely phonetic, meaning that once you've learned how each letter is pronounced, you can pronounce pretty much everything you read.
The grammar is straight-forward and very regular. It is quite different from most European languages, however, English included. One example of this is Swahili's use of prefixes. Instead of saying "The Swahili language", in Swahili, you say "kiswahili", where the "ki" prefix is an indicator that we're talking about a language. (English is called "kiingereza" and French is called "kifaransa").
The same goes for plurals. Where the English language adds an "s" to a noun in order to make it into a plural, in Swahili, you add or change a prefix. For example "song" is "wimbo" but "songs" is "nyimbo".
So while the grammar might be easy, the fact that it is so different might make it take a little while longer to get down. The same goes for vocabulary, where only the European loan-words aren't extremely foreign. There are many of those, though.
When it comes to pronunciation, Swahili is really easy and the only letter that you might find even remotely challenging is the R, which is thrilled (like in Scottish or Indian English).
Overall, Swahili is an easy, but exotic language. This means that it might take a little longer to learn than the European languages such as Spanish and Dutch, but then it's easier than Russian, Vietnamese, and Chinese.
The FSI, which is the American Government Institution that teaches foreign languages to future diplomats estimates that it takes a talented, highly motivated, and hard-working English-speaker around 900 classroom hours to learn Swahili.
Most people don't resemble the FSI's average student, however, and the estimate might be quite different for you depending on a lot of other factors.
What Level Of Swahili Are You Aiming For?
One of the most obvious things to consider when looking at the time it'll take to learn Swahili is the level you're aiming for.
Do you have to go for native-like fluency?
Most people, when speaking of learning a language, call their end-goal by the word "fluency". But what does that word actually mean?
Well, in reality, fluency means being able to speak in a fluid manner or to converse in a steady, uninterrupted pace. You don't have to master the accent down to a tee to be able to communicate, and if you don't know all words in the dictionary, you can just use some others.
So you could argue that "fluency" doesn't have to be that "upper-advanced near-native" level that many strive for. It could be an intermediary level where you're simply able to get by in the language without relying on English or anything else than your Swahili.
The difference in study-time between the upper advanced level of Swahili (referred to as C2) and the lower-intermediate level (B1) is huge. Going for B1, or perhaps B2 could save you years, and after that, you can always improve.
What's Your Background With Languages And Learning?
An experienced polyglot can learn Swahili much faster than your uncle Bob. (Well, except if Bob is an even more seasoned polyglot in which case I stand corrected).
The more experience you've got with languages in general, the faster you'll be able to pick up a new one. If you already know another Bantu language, related to Swahili, you'll be lightyears ahead. But even the Spanish classes you took in high-school can be an advantage!
Why? Simply because even having notions of how foreign languages work will be a lot better than only ever having been able to understand English because you'll have broken through the "invisible barrier" that foreign languages hide behind.
If you've ever studied languages in school and heard some of your classmates exclaim "why do they have to say it that way" or "why can't they just do it like we do in English" you've met someone who hasn't yet broken through that barrier. One of the biggest obstacles (and one of the first ones) is being able to put a lid on your mother tongue and accept that there are other, just as valid ways of communicating.
And if you're not a polyglot, or haven't ever studied German in school or even taken a trip to the Bahamas. Well, in this case, if you're good at studying, being disciplined, taking notes, and so on, you'll learn Swahili a little faster than someone who's never really excelled as a student.
But guess what? You can learn Swahili even though you've got zero academic experience too. It'll take a little longer, but you'll definitely learn. So will your uncle Bob.
How Motivated Are You Actually To Learn Swahili?
Those that are extremely motivated to learn Swahili learn it faster than those who aren't. That's another important variable for calculating the study time you need. If you're not really "into" Swahili, it'll be a struggle.
Motivation in language learning is not just about "not giving up" and "being consistent". If you truly love the language and feel excited about it, the information will also get into your brain a lot easier, and it'll stay there at a much higher degree than would be the case for someone who was only moderately interested.
So if you're not particularly motivated, you need to change! But then again, why would you be here reading this article if you weren't motivated?
How Consistently Will You Be Studying And How Much Time Will You Put In?
The more you study, the faster you'll reach your goals. Ok, you probably figured out that much yourself.
But there's a little more to it.
I've found that there's a magic amount of time that you need to study every day in order for you to progress most efficiently. If you study too much, you'll get tired, lose concentration, and maybe even run the risk of losing motivation altogether.
Anything above 1½ hours a day, and you'll start getting a little less "bang for your buck". This isn't to say that your time will be wasted if you study Swahili all day, every day. But the 8 hours you spent in a day will be worth a little less - perhaps like 4 days worth of 1½ hours (and 4 times 1½ is only 6... See, I'm helping!)
Studying less than 30-45 minutes a day will also diminish the "learning-profit" you get out of your study sessions. If you only have 20 minutes to spend every day, it just gets hard to review what you covered the previous day as well as covering new material and actually progressing. You'll still learn Swahili, but 15 minutes a day is worth less than a quarter of what one hour would be.
And then there's consistency. Studying often and regularly is actually more important than studying a lot. Sure, going crazy and studying Swahili for an entire weekend is great, but if you then proceed to do nothing for two weeks, those efforts will almost be wasted.
Someone who studies once a week, even if he or she puts in many hours, will progress slower than someone who studies a couple of times per week. And if you study every day, it's even better.
The best approach is to study several times per day. I'm not saying that you should cram in multiple hour-long study sessions during the day, but if you can study Swahili 20 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes during your commute, 15 minutes in your coffee break, 20 minutes in the afternoon, and 5 minutes while doing the dishes, you'll keep your brain soaked in Swahili all throughout the day. This means that you will have to review a lot less than if you studied less frequently, making your time more efficient.
So How Long Does It Really Take To Learn Swahili?
Ok, I just went through a load of different factors that play important roles in figuring out how long it'll take you to learn Swahili. In reality, there are a lot more variables, such as your study-style, the method you're using, and a ton of other things.
I've tried, however, to group all of the above factors together and try and make sense of them. It's really impossible to figure out how each variable affects the others. Is consistency more or less important than motivation? What about experience?
A short answer to a long and complicated question would be "it depends". But you didn't come here for that, so I've tried to come up with something better, which is a calculator for calculating language-learning study time!
My calculator is far from perfect. It's based on a few, somewhat scientific measures of language levels and estimated study time and a lot of hunches and personal guesstimates thrown in - but it spits out a number of years, months, and days. And that's something you might consider.
According to my calculator, a highly experienced polyglot who's very motivated and puts in an hour a day, can learn Swahili to the B2-level in 1½ years time.
Someone who's only moderately interested in Swahili and who's inexperienced with language-learning and academic learning, in general, would need closer to 4½ years for reaching the same level.
And for you, the answer might be quite different.
The only way to find out is to start studying Swahili today!