Swahili as a Critical Language

More than a less commonly taught language, Swahili is designated as a “critical language” by the U.S. State Department and a “strategic language” by the Department of Defense. These are not just labels, but mean that government programs, scholarships and funding are available to encourage Swahili study in colleges throughout the country. While the State Department also cites economic importance as reason to place a language on its list, both departments cite security interests for designating languages as critical or strategic. And unfortunately, parts of the Swahili-speaking world are experiencing conflict severe enough to be picked up on the government’s radar.

In studying Swahili you may very well have the opportunity to apply for a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) scholarship, Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), Boren Scholarship or even Project Global Officers (GO) scholarship, or at least know somebody on one of these scholarships. These scholarships all exist at least in part due to national security interests, so even if your interest in East Africa could not be further from the national security realm and has more to do with, say, elephants, it is important to have a basic knowledge of why so many opportunities to study Swahili exist in the first place.

U.S. security concerns in the Swahili-speaking world are focused mostly around its edges, on the Horn of Africa. The failure of the Somali state, which has lacked effective government for nearly 30 years, has affected its surrounding countries, especially Kenya. As Somalia’s civil war has progressed it has taken an extremist direction, with one of the largest warring groups, Al-Shabaab, being a terrorist group allied with Al Qaida. The United Nations (UN) has authorized a series of peacekeeping efforts in Somalia, the most recent of which, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), was begun in 2007.

Al-Shabaab’s activities in the relatively porous border region between Somali and Kenya led to multiple incursions, culminating in the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers in late 2011. Though Kenya had been planning an invasion of Somalia for quite some time, it used the 2011 kidnapping episode as the impetus to launch Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Country, in Swahili), in order to combat Al-Shabaab across the border.

After taking considerable time to gain steam, Kenyan soldiers, cooperating with AMISOM, pushed Al-Shabaab out of border regions and cities throughout Southern Somalia. In 2012, these soldiers were integrated into AMISOM to support more conventional peacekeeping efforts. Unfortunately, for its active role in combatting Al-Shabaab, Kenya was later the subject of multiple terror attacks, including the Westgate Mall attack of 2013 and the Garissa University attack of 2015. Currently, AMISOM claims that Al-Shabaab controls no major Somali cities, but few areas remain under Somali government control either. Kenya, citing fears of terrorism, is attempting to force its Somali refugees to leave the country, sparking harassment of Somali-Kenyans and potentially acting as a recruiting tool for Al-Shabaab.

The U.S. is attempting to bolster the Somali government and AMISOM to fight Al-Shabaab and thus promote security on the Horn of Africa. The U.S. works with Kenyan and other East African governments to train soldiers and otherwise provide support in the fight against Al-Shabaab. This is a significant reason why Swahili, as the language of many of the U.S.’ East African allies, is considered a critical/strategic language, with many government programs and scholarships available to study it.


Works Consulted:

“About CLS.” Critical Language Scholarship Program. Accessed December 11, 2017. http://www.clscholarship.org/about.


“Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus.” FLPB | DLNSEO. Accessed December 11, 2017. https://dlnseo.org/content/flpb.


Rawlence, Ben, author. City Of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp. New York: Picador, 2016.


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