Swahili and English: A Quick Side by Side Comparison

Swahili and English:

A Quick Side by Side Comparison

~R. Kali Woodward, Executive Director, American Youth Literacy Foundation

Last night I decided to learn how to read Swahili. It took me about 15 minutes to master the code. Now, granted, I couldn’t understand a word of what I was reading, but the pronunciation was spot on. That’s because Swahili is pretty much a phonetic code with very few exceptions, the most notable being its digraphs like ch and sh, ng, dh and gh and a few others.


Tanzanian schools will teach students Swahili, not English

The vowels a, e, i, o and u are literally, exactly the same as spanish making the /ah/ like “dot” sound, the /ay/ like “acorn” sound, the /ee/ like “eagle” sound, the /oh/ like “ocean” sound and the /oo/ like “spoon” sound respectively. In my estimation, Swahili would not be such a difficult language to learn. The code is a cinch, which leaves only vocabulary, grammar and syntax. Perhaps that’s why 135 million people speak it as a second language.

The fundamentals of reading are six fold:

1) Understand that language is made up of a fixed number of unique sounds (called phonemes);

2) Associate each sound with a sound symbol (a letter or combination of letters);

3) Blend sound symbols together and speak them in sequence to form a word;

4) Associate meaning with the word;

5) Blend words together to form sentences;

6) Associate meaning with the sentences.

For Swahili, the sounds are not difficult although there are a few phonemes not found in English and some are gutteral as they were influenced by Arabic over millennia. The sound/symbol association is consistent, although it’s not a true one to one. A student has to learn some 2 letter combinations (digraphs) as mentioned above; but these digraphs are also consistent. So, in other words, dh doesn’t sound like one thing in one word and something entirely different in a different word. Finally, blending is not complex, although it’s a bit of a tongue twisting language and much more staccato than English so you have to pick up the pace of your tongue and lip movements quite a bit. Here’s a link to a site that has phrases and translations and audio sound clips. Very straightforward.


Now, for just a quick look at English. First off, let’s start with the first letter of the alphabet. (Pretend you’re a non English speaker trying to decipher English for the first time.) I will now tell you the sound that the letter A makes so that you are able to read it correctly.

/aa/ as in apple

/oh/ as in boat

/ay/ as in acorn

/uh/ as in was

/aw/ as in paw or ball

/or/ as in boar

/air/ as in care or hair

/an/ as in man

/ee/ as in read

/uhl/ as in animal

/eh/ as in bread

/ow/ as in sauerkraut

/er/ as in Earth

/ah/ as in watch

/ar/ as in heart

/eye/ as in Thai

Great, now that you’ve memorized the sounds that A makes, let’s move on to the letter E … oh, was there a question? The question was, “how do we know which pronunciation to use in which words?” That’s a very good question. The answer is simple. There are no rules; just learn by trial and error and hope there’s a native speaker around to help you.

But what if there IS no native speaker around to help you? Well, that’s where we come in. The American Youth Literacy foundation has been developing and field testing now for 12 years a very simple, intuitive pronunciation system that teaches children how to read English, be they native speakers or ESL students. The system we use is a variation on the diacritical vowel system adopted by both Hebrew and Arabic about 1,000 years ago and still in use today. It eliminates the need for a teacher with a native accent or an adult of any kind to model the pronunciation of the English code. The only tool that would be required for remote learners would be an audio sound byte for each of the English phonemes.

The American English language has 44 sounds (give or take a few, depending on who you ask; 44 sounds is all you need to form any English word). Over the past 12 years, we’ve compiled these into a list, an “Alphabet of Sounds,” if you will, utilizing 19 known consonants from the alphabet and 25 additional, child friendly, mnemonic sound symbols that we’ve created. So for example, the Acorn says /ay/, the Eagle says /ee/, the Eye says /eye/ etc. Each symbol says its own name. For purposes of writing and teaching, we’ve created a print and script font. When combined, the letters and symbols form a phonetic English code that most children can learn to read in less than 3 hours. By teaching a phonetic English code first, we can instill basic principles of reading such as blending and sound / symbol association without having to deal with the irregularities of each and every letter in the English language as we saw with the letter A above. In this manner we can teach children to read in approximately 12 hours. From there, we begin working back to the English code using the symbols as diacritic pronunciation indicators above a given word. We call this component of our curriculum, FUNetix.

American phonibet

Now, try the puzzle below to get an even better feel for how this system works. The average high school student can solve the puzzle in about 10 minutes.


The Phonibet is an open source list of the English phonemes, our gift to children and to English language learners around the world. We only ask for reference credits if you use it.

21E and the FUNetix language decoding system is a patented, trademarked and copyrighted curriculum that we are openly willing to share for any non-commercial use and that we are happy to license for commercial use. Again, for non-commercial use we only request reference to our organization and web site.

Our mission, notwithstanding the XPrize, is to bring ESL to one billion children worldwide and to reverse the literacy crisis in America by ensuring that all children learn how to read. We are willing to participate and share curriculum with any XPrize team that is interested in our content.

In my estimation, teaching Swahili literacy is pretty straightforward if you apply the 6 principles of reading. Meanwhile, teaching English without the Phonibet, FUNetix and 21E will, not probably, but absolutely and with 100% certainty, result in the same types of failure rates we are seeing in our public schools today, 22% illiteracy and an additional 44% functional illiteracy (66% total illiteracy or functional illiteracy: only 34% of ALL 8th grade public school students are considered proficient in reading and only 3% are considered advanced) despite a $700 billion dollar annual budget and an average expenditure of more than $100,000 per child over the course of their academic career.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 12.25.30 PM

So, I would urge any and all teams that are serious about teaching ESL to collaborate with us and achieve phenomenal results. Please don’t reinvent the wheel. We all want the same thing: universal global literacy for the next generation!


  1. Kali Woodward

Executive Director

American Youth Literacy Foundation




Skype xbrains21

PS, if you’re looking for a best practices approach to numeracy, this video where kids use an invisible abacus to do math not only will blow your mind but also raises the question of “what is the best foundation for mathematical excellence?”


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