Language, culture and conflict resolution. A case of Kiswahili as a unifying language in Kenya

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2018

11 Pages












The purpose of this paper is to show that a common language is one of the most important features of a diverse community. Human communication is based on features that describe an event and capture emotions, needs, interests and fears. Language is used to resolve or escalate dispute. Opara (2016), asserted that People from different culture and social units perceive the world through the lens provided by their distinctive languages. Meaning that language provides a repertoire of words that name the categories into which the language users have divided their world. In fact, definitions of words are linguistically, culturally and contextually bound. Words carry meanings that make sense to members of a shared social environment. Conflict resolution relies heavily on word choices. Here language is key to dispute resolution because it is the words human beings in the world use as an accelerator to harmonious living or existential war fronts. There is an assumption in Kenya that conflict is best resolved when people can speak in one “nativity”, for instance, the kikuyu when faced with conflict can best sort out the issue in their native language because of the semiotics of the conflict. There is linguistic consistency where all the words used add value to the discourse. The researcher posits that in a country like Kenya, were national conflicts build from local dialectics, Kiswahili can be the unifying factor and a conflict resolution tool. Kiswahili as a trade language in Eastern Africa does accommodate the diversity of culture and language use. The paper therefore explores the strengths of Kiswahili language in intercultural conflict resolution, and emphasizes the need to consider the uses of the language in national and transnational conflict resolution.

KEYWORDS: Language, Culture, Conflict Resolution, Kiswahili , Unifying Language


Academics, linguists and culture are concerned and resilient at solving language related problems through language, literature and culture. These hold promise for improving the lot of our citizenry, particularly in this times of general national distress and unrest in the nation. This theme: language and literature in national cohesion and continental integration is of very timely importance in our nation Kenya, in the great lakes region, in the continent of Africa, and in the world as a whole. The role of language in conflict resolution is socio-cultural as well as philosophical with the aim to meet our Basic Human Needs. It may have influence either for good or evil in human existence. Conflict is an unavoidably integral part of communal existence. Its unfolding is certain but its resolution should be amicable. Basic choice of language and words, to a very large extent could actually end or fuel a conflict.

According to the Conflict Theory, suggested by Karl Marx, society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources. It holds that social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than consensus and conformity. Language and literature in national cohesion is a value builder into consensus and conformity. There is value added in human existence in the way that we execute our language in the context of multi-cultural existence. This is in view of a situation where there is high competition for resources by diverse ethnic communities. In Kenya today, the Kiswahili language and its use in the sociolinguistic context has helped to add value and aesthetics to oratory in the context of completion for limited resources. In essence, Kiswahili as used in east and central Africa today has been owned and accepted as part of its people and their value systems. This paper seeks to present the Kiswahili language as motion to push and advocate human value in conflict resolution and national cohesion in our existence both in Kenya and the continent as a whole.

Language and culture combined are major components of social identity. Language and culture not only bring meanings to the world, but also shape one’s cognitive process, such as perception, interpretation and judgment (Opara, 2016). She continues to assert that the link between language, culture and identity is often so strong that a single phonemic feature suffices to identify someone’s membership in a given group. In many ways different language may be used to separate people, however, a unifying language like Kiswahili will in many ways bring people together. The language would offer a tool for negotiation and a good recipe for conflict resolution in a multi- lingual and multi- cultural society like Kenya today.

The Kiswahili language allows communication to occur across tribal boundaries. It plays a crucial role in facilitating dialogue across different communities, cultures and nationalities within the region and the continent as a whole. It entails promotion of nationhood and cultural consolidation into one. It was observed by the researcher that the use of Kiswahili in nation building cohesion and integration would foster conflict resolutions greatly at a national level.

Leonard and Law (2004), noted that in a context of international conflict, perceptions of and emotional reactions to an event could be bound by one’s social-cultural assumptions. Many scholars claimed that interpretations of an event are bound by social-linguistic perceptions. In fact, cultural variation has an impact on motivation, cognition and behavior of citizen in dispute resolution. Similarly, language plays a crucial role in causing and resolving conflicts. The manipulation of language in communication can often strengthen or weaken group solidarity. It can also be used to categorize individuals into in-group members.


Language is essentially a means of communication among the members of a society. This function is strongly related to the social nature of a language. Society acquires self-awareness through the contact and communication between its members. The significance of communication between people equates the significance of language – the most important means of communication (Sirbu, 2015). The researcher further asserted that being the most significant tool of communication, a particular language which is mastered only by some people has often been the determining factor in turning these people into one group as a people, a nation or a state.


According to the Webster Dictionary, Culture is defined as the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time. The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization. In the context of this paper, culture, as defined, reflects what people have cultivated into their own existence and value system. Kiswahili as a language and culture in the Eastern Africa region, as an accepted phenomenon in the people’s socio-linguistic existence.


Conflict resolution is a basic human activity articulated and conducted in forms that significantly vary across cultures. Differences in approach rest on contrasting understandings of the nature of conflict and society (Cohen, 2001). Conflict is an unavoidably integral part of communal existence. Its unfolding is certain but its resolution could be amicable. Conflicts generally unfold, but basic use of choice of language and choice of words, to a very large extent could actually reduce the embers of its fire (Jibri, 2017). She further asserts that how others perceive conflicts and their subsequent reactions of language use, which could be positive or negative, is very vital in conflict situations. It is discovered that using inciting words could both instigate and arouse conflicts, which can escalate to attacks and even very bloody attacks. The effects of fowl use of language far outweigh the use of purr words that appeal to emotion. Our language use must be accommodating, cooperating, promoting of peaceful co-existence, whether informally, semi-formally or formally. So also is this in our homes, offices, in the nation and anywhere we find ourselves. Undoubtedly, appropriate use of language could serve as the best solution to resolution of conflicts. This paper actually fronts the Kiswahili language as a pacifier of ethnically oriented conflicts in our nation. This is in its ability to bring both people and idea together.


The essential question this paper asks is, Why Kiswahili Language in Particular? The language chosen can amount to a denial of the right to participate in societal affairs. This can happen when the language chosen is not spoken by some sections of the society. In the Kenyan context, the choice of Kiswahili as the language of social mobilization allows the participation of a large number of Kenyans in our societal affairs. English is known as a language of the elite and would thus leave out a large section of the society. Our local and native dialects offer a local coating that leads to exclusive incumbency. Kiswahili is a language that meets the communication needs of a society hence an essential tool for propagating peace in Kenya. Kiswahili as a national language solidifies the people’s national cohesion since strong bonds are developed among the people.


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Language, culture and conflict resolution. A case of Kiswahili as a unifying language in Kenya
Moi University  (education)
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language, kiswahili, kenya
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Denis Kisembe (Author), 2018, Language, culture and conflict resolution. A case of Kiswahili as a unifying language in Kenya, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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