9. Safari

In which we journey through the Bantu languages to help us see the beauty and complexity of our own

Safari. It’s an Arabic word, which may surprise you. You probably associate it with Africa, with elephants, buffalo, leopards, lions, and rhinoceros, named “the Big Five” by game hunters from the colonial era, as they were considered the most difficult and dangerous African beasts to hunt on foot.

But the word safari means simply journey. It is among the many hundreds of Arabic words that Swahili has imported. Our safari will enable us better to appreciate the beauty and complexity of language, our own included.

Were an English traveller to undertake the journey from London to Tehran on foot, he or she would hear a bewildering variety of tongues spoken, many belonging to completely different language families: the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic branches of Indo-European, among others; Turkic; and Semitic.

A line drawn from the northernmost part of the Bantu linguistic area in Cameroon to its southernmost point in South Africa is about the same distance as from London to Tehran, but for almost the entire journey we would be hearing languages belonging to the same branch of just one language family: Bantu.

The most widely spoken Bantu languages, in ascending order, are said to be, Kikuyu, Mbundu, Tshiluba, Xhosa, Kirundi, Lingala, Zulu, Kinyarwanda, Shona, Swahili.

If you are not actually learning a Bantu language, you may wonder if this chapter holds any interest for you. Pleased be assured that it does, The journey will help us to appreciate the beauty and complexity of all languages, including our own.

We shall also be paving the way for volume II of this series: The Language Secret: How to Speak a Language Well. If you have read this far, we know that’s what you want to do.

In the previous chapters, we have taken a pragmatic, utilitarian approach, asking ourselves the question: how can we communicate approximately what we mean with the minimum amount of effort? Language is not just a form of communication, however, so in this chapter we shall concentrate a little more on the aesthetics, on the nuances, on what makes language so beautiful. And in so doing we will embark on the first steps to the delights of speaking another tongue fluently.



  • The structure and characteristics of Bantu languages

  • Language as a pathway into another culture

  • Tones and speech patterns

  • Idiom and metaphor: meaning and connotation

  • Google Translate and other translation software (CAT):bodgers all

  • Register – what to avoid when communicating in a second language

This is an extract from our must-read book about language learning, THE LANGUAGE SECRET. Browse the site for more extracts from the other chapters and information about what they contain. You can also purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the button at the bottom of the page.