Can You Get by with English in Tanzania?

Can you get by with English in Tanzania? The answer to that is yes. Most people in Tanzania speak English. Nonetheless, Swahili is the native language in Tanzania, well not exactly.

Can you get by with English in Tanzania?
“Polepole” means slow. The guides will say it if you are hiking too fast


In Tanzania, there are more than 120 different tribes. Most of them speak a different language. However, one of the founding directives, when the United Republic of Tanzania became independent in 1961, was that no ethnic group should dominate. To achieve this, the Tanzanian government has adopted Swahili as the official language of Tanzania. 

With Swahili being the official language do you have to know it to travel to Tanzania? No, you don’t. In Tanzania, Swahili is taught and used exclusively in primary school. However, when students get to secondary school English is the primary language. Unfortunately, this causes a high dropout rate.

Despite English being used everywhere, there are a few key words and phrases you can learn and use around the country. This applies more to traveling in town such as the market or out in the countryside between safari parks.

Tanzania has many people selling food and souvenirs on the street around the smaller towns. Some of them can get rather aggressive with trying to push their wares on you. We have witnessed pedallers jumping on safari vehicles to get them to stop so they can sell to tourists. This doesn’t happen very often but you may have to deal with them poking their heads into your vehicle. So how can you keep them from getting too pushy? One way is to learn some Swahili.

Learn These

These are the ones you will hear frequently, so learning them will allow you to understand what is being said.

Polepole Slow

Maji Water

Asante Sana Thank you very much

Hapana Asante No thank you

Asante Thank you

Takataka Trash

Maji Water

Chai Tea

Kahawa Coffee

Bia Beer

Jambo Hello

Habari How are you?

Hapana No

Ndiyo Yes

Hakuna mata No trouble

Karibu Welcome

coffee on Kilimanjaro
Ask for “Kahawa” so you’ll get coffee in the morning.

Additional Words

These words are not as important to know, but if you are enjoying learning Swahili, then why not?

Bei gain? How much is it?

Ghali sana It’s too expensive

Ninatazama tuy I’m just looking around

Benki Bank

Wakati gani? What time is it?

Nina njaa I’m hungry

Ladha! It was delicious!

Nina mboga I am vegetarian

Mvinyo Wine

Sina sana I don’t feel very good

Siku nzuri Have a nice day

Bafuni Bathroom

Teksi Taxi

Acha Stop

Nenda Go

Private Toilet Tent
Private Toilet Tent

Final Thoughts

Again, it isn’t required to know the language, but it is good to know some words. It is fun to use them and the locals will also enjoy teaching them to you.

For the mountain, you definitely will hear, “maji” frequently. You need to drink water on your climb. and they will remind you often. You’ll also hear “polepole” if you are hiking too fast. “Asante” and “jambo” will also be used daily. And don’t forget “Hakuna mata”. This is actually not just from Disney’s Lion King it is an actual phrase and the mountain crew loves to sing about it.

On safari, “acha” is used when you want to stop and take a picture. When you are ready to proceed, then “nenda asante” (go, thank you) can be used. Keep in mind that that isn’t always the words that our drivers or guides may use. Because they may teach you some of these words in their tribal language instead of Swahili.

We hope this information makes traveling to Tanzania an even more enjoyable experience. We are confident that you’ll find the people of Tanzania as friendly and as pleasant as we do.

swahili cheat sheet
Protip: Have a Swahili cheat sheet on your phone. Click to enlarge

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