Use of Language to identify Oneself

Personal/self identity refers to how you see yourself as “different” from those around you. It is what defines you as an individual, could be personal preferences like food, clothes, language(s), music etc. It determines how we interact with other people. Language is an important tool that shapes personal identity. For instance, most Kenyans are multilinguals who speak English, Swahili and their native languages. When many Kenyans travel outside the country to the diaspora, they take pride in identifying with the local food and the local languages in use in particular the Swahili language. Phrases like Habari yako, Jambo bwana and Mimi ni Mkenya show solidarity to the country.

Our choice of language expresses our ethnic, religious, regional, educational, psychological, relational and many other identities. We can be able to recognize a soldier, advocate, mechanic, teacher, child, gender, or any other identity through their language or idiolect. In Kenyan urban settlements, most millennials and Gen zs can easily be identified by their use of Sheng language in communication. Sheng is an urban language which combines mainly Kiswahili and English but also other Kenyan languages such as Kikuyu, Luhya, Dholuo and Kikamba. In the recent past, there’s been a shift in the realm of communication during interactions among the youth who prefer to use the more colloquial sheng language and their native languages. In addition, there’s been a shift in the language used for advertisement in the media as Sheng has become a necessary marketing tool in the twenty-first century. It is used by businesses, NGOs and government to create awareness of their products. Sheng language also plays a major role in the entertainment industry.  For example, hit songs like Tabia za Wakenya by Mejja and Sijazoea kuteteshwa by Kushman have been mainly composed using Sheng language. Many Kenyan youths identify themselves with Sheng language.

Kenya as a country has great ethnic diversity. Most Kenyans are bilingual in the two Official languages English and Swahili, but a large percentage also speak the mother tongue of their ethnic tribe. The major ethnic groups in Kenya as per the 2019 Census report include the Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin, Kamba, Kisii, Meru etc… Other languages spoken include Arabic and Hindi. A good number of Kenyan citizens realize the importance of our native languages in preserving our heritage. Many Kenyans identify themselves by their ethnic languages. A person’s first language is critical to their identity. Maintaining the native language helps one to value their culture and heritage, which contributes to a positive self-concept. By learning any of the local Kenyan languages, one is able to have a deeper understanding of the history and customs of their community.

There are foreign languages taught in schools and language centres like Oracle Language Centre in Kenya. They include French, Spanish, Chinese etc…People consider learning foreign languages for various reasons namely; to enhance job opportunities, deepen connection with other cultures, for travel purposes, for business and many other reasons. There are those Kenyans who identify more with these foreign languages. Language use and individual identity is a product of lived experiences. It is the outcome of one’s interaction with the social, political and cultural influences. People in new geographical locations may redefine their identities to conform to their surroundings. Thus, a person can change themselves including language based on the environment. Foreigners who travel to Kenya are often interested to learn Swahili as it helps them to easily blend in.

Every individual has a certain identity, but it is not static. It is dependent on the occasion, purpose, and context. People in new geographical locations may redefine their identities to conform to their surroundings. Thus, Kenyans can identify themselves through any one or a combination of the following languages: Official and National Languages (English and Swahili), the urban language (Sheng), ethnic languages found in Kenya or the foreign languages spoken in the country.

At Oracle Language Centre, we offer customised classes at affordable rates for the following languages: Gikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Dholuo, Kamba, Swahili, English, French, Spanish and Arabic languages. For more information, check us at

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