I mean, really huge—more so than you might expect. We’re talking a continent as big as the U.S., India, China and most of Europe combined.
For us language enthusiasts, that means more languages than you can count. Africa is a veritable buffet for the language learner. In fact, it’s estimated that there may be over 3,000 languages spoken in Africa!
Not only is Africa the second most populous continent in the world with over one billion people, but it is also home to the highest linguistic diversity in the world, with over 1500 different languages.
The principle languages on the continent include Arabic, French and English. Arabic was ranked the 5th most spoken language in the world by research group Ethnologue, with over 240 million speakers worldwide. In Africa, there are more than 100 million speakers, with Egypt accounting for more than 54 million. It is also the most widespread official language on the continent, incluing in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.
English reached the 3rd spot as the most spoken language in the world, with over 330 million speakers. It is known as the ‘lingua franca’ of the world, widely used for international business, and is the language of the scientific and medical fields, which use English as a basis for much of the terminology. In Africa, majority of native English speakers are from South Africa, and the language is most spoken in Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
African languages form part of four language groups, namely Afro-Asiatic covering Northern Africa, Central Sahara and the Horn of Africa, Nilo-Saharian covering Central and Eastern Africa, Niger-Congo covering Central, Southern and Eastern Africa and Khoisan, covering the western part of Southern Africa.
English and French are both widely spoken throughout the continent, though the number of native speakers is probably less that of Amharic. For example, English has around 5 million native speakers in South Africa and probably less than 10 million continent-wide.
Below are top 11 African languages to know when doing business on the continent or enjoying tourist destinations and experiencing diverse cultures on the continent:
Swahili is the most spoken language in Africa, with over 100 million speakers. It is a Bantu language believed to have originated from other languages, mainly Arabic, due to historical interactions between Arabs from the Middle East and East Africans. Swahili is Tanzania’s official language, as well as the medium of instruction in all schools. It is also Kenya’s official language as well as Uganda. Other Swahili speaking nations include Rwanda, Burundi, southern Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan northern Mozambique and the Comoros Islands. To greet in Swahili, one says, “Jambo”, or “Habari” when greeting an elder.
Second on our list is Swahili, known as Kiswahili in the language itself.
Swahili is a Bantu language widely spoken in the African Great Lakes region, which comprises of a huge swath of Central, Southern and East African. There’s also a huge number of Swahili speakers in countries adjacent to the Great Lakes region.
With Swahili under your belt, you’ll be able to visit gorgeous countries like Tanzania and Kenya, where Swahili is an official language. Swahili will also help you get around parts of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While it’s natively spoken by 15 million people, there are more than 150 million speakers total, and it’s a common second language throughout this region!
Swahili is quite appealing to many language learners due to the fact that it’s widely spoken and for its history. Kiswahili (the name of the language in Swahili) means “coastal language,” and it’s a trade language that was created to facilitate communications between a number of Southern and Eastern Africa’s wide variety of ethnic groups.
It’s also not too hard for English speakers to learn—unlike many African languages, Swahili doesn’t use tones and, unlike Arabic and Amharic, it uses the Latin alphabet. If you do know some Arabic then you have a good head start, as there are tons of Arabic loanwords in Swahili.
What’s more, I guarantee you already know a handful of Swahili words. Why? The writers of Disney’s “The Lion King” had a bit of a love affair with Swahili. Hakuna Matata? That’s Swahili for “no worries!” Simba? Swahili for “lion!”
How to Learn Swahili
If you want to get into the basics of Swahili, try BBC’s guide to pick up some vocabulary and greetings. And here’s a fun song to practice those greetings!
Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia and is the second most spoken language in the country after Oromo, with over 21 million speakers. It is the second most spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic, and is also the language of over 2 million Ethiopians living outside of the country. The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family originating from the Middle East. Amharic, along with Arabic, Hebrew and Tigrinya, are the most spoken Semitic languages in the world by way of native speakers. It is written in the Ge’ez or Ethiopic script, with over 30 different characters. To say hello in Amharic, one says, “Salam”.
Amharic is a rich and ancient Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia.
It’s related to Arabic and Hebrew, and with 22 million native speakers it’s the second most widely spoken Semitic language after Arabic.
Amharic is gorgeous when spoken, and it’s even more stunning when written in its unique script. It uses an alphasyllabary called fidel—basically, each “letter” represents a consonant/vowel combination, but the forms of the consonants and vowels change depending on the combinations.
Learning to write fidel might take a little longer than learning the Arabic script, but it’s still well within reach of the average learner. Try taking advantage of tools like SRS (Spaced Repetition Systems) to efficiently memorize each letter and its various combinations.
Amharic is also host to a growing body of Ethiopian literature. Poetry and novels are both popular, and learning Amharic will open the door to experiencing literature far different from that of the rest of the world. Once you have the basics down, try your hand at reading the most famous Amharic novel, “Fiqir Iske Meqabir” (translated into English as “Love Unto Crypt”) by Haddis Alemayehu.
Yoruba is one of West Africa’s most spoken languages, accounting for over 30 million speakers in Nigeria, Benin and Togo, and it is one of Nigeria’s official languages. It is also widely spoken by West African expats in the US and UK. It is the mother tongue of the Yoruba people in Nigeria, and has over fifteen dialects including Awori, Ijesha, Ilaje and Ila. It is a tonal language with three tones: high, mid and low, and forms part of the Volta-Niger branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages. To say hello in Yoruba, one says “Bawo”.
Oromo is spoken by over 30 million people in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Egypt. The Oromo people account for more than 40% of the Ethiopian population, and are the largest ethnic group in the country. The writing of the language was forbidden between 1974 and 1991 under the Mengistu regime, even though limited usage of the Ge’ez script was allowed. After 1991, the language adopted the Latin alphabet. It falls under the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. To say hello in Oromo, one says “Akkam”.
Hausa is one of Nigeria’s official languages, and one of the most spoken Chadic languages on the continent, with over 40 million native and second language speakers. It originated as the language of the Hausa people in northern Nigeria and southern Niger, and soon spread as the lingua franca of western Africa due to trade. It is spoken mainly in northern Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Congo, Eritrea, Germany, Ghana, Sudan, Togo and much of North Africa. It uses the Boko and Latin alphabet as its writing system, and is also the basic language for most Muslim populations in western Africa. To say hello in Hausa, one says “Sannu”.
One of Nigeria’s official languages, Igbo is spoken by over 20 million people, with a significant amount of speakers in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. The language has more than 20 dialects, with Central Igbo being the most prevalent. The language was made prominent by author Chinua Achebe, who wrote the popular book “Things Fall Apart” and wrote most of his books in Igbo, mirroring and popularizing Igbo culture. It falls under the Volta-Niger branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages. To say hello in Igbo, one says “Nnoo”.
IsiZulu, or Zulu, is one of South Africa’s official language, and has over 10 million speakers. It is a member of the Bantu/Nguni family of languages, and is spoken mainly in eastern South Africa. It is the second most widely spoken Bantu language, after Shona, and is written using the Latin alphabet. It is characterized by unique click sounds within the dialect as a result of influence from the Khoisan language. To say hello in Zulu, one says “Sawubona”.
Shona is the most spoken language in Zimbabwe, with over 10 million speakers in a population of over 14 million. It is Bantu language from the Bantu/Nguni family of languages, and has speakers in Botswana and Mozambique. It is the principle language of Zimbabwe, along with Ndebele and English. To say hello in Shona, one says “Mhoro”.
Arabic is a huge language, fit for a huge continent.
If you decide to learn Arabic, well, you’ll probably get more bang for your buck than you even thought possible.
Arabic is a Semitic language, and it’s spoken by 280 million native speakers worldwide. As far as Africa is concerned, Arabic is an official language in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Eritrea… the list goes on! It’s also widely spoken in countries where it hasn’t yet been recognized as an official language.
Arabic comes in a number of flavors—to start out, you’ll choose between Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial dialects. If you learn Modern Standard Arabic, you’ll be able to communicate with most Arabic speakers around the world. Modern Standard Arabic is the written form of the language—this is the Arabic used in news articles, online and in novels. It’s spoken in newscasts and in some TV shows.
However, this is not the form of Arabic that native speakers always learn as children. They learn various dialects of Arabic, unique to their regions. Some of these dialects are more mutually intelligible (speakers of different dialects can understand each other) than others, but learning, say, Moroccan or Egyptian Colloquial Arabic gets you deeply connected with a culture in a way that Modern Standard Arabic can’t.
So, if you get really into Arabic, you’ll want to learn Modern Standard first, and then adopt a colloquial dialect of your choice!
If you want to put your efforts into learning a dialect, Egyptian Colloquial Arabic is a great place to start if you don’t have a specific country in mind—it’s the most spoken dialect. Browse this textbook for Egyptian Colloquial basics.
And what about the script? To readers of the Latin alphabet, Arabic looks incomprehensible. For starters, it’s written only in cursive, there are multiple forms of each letter and there are no vowels! What to do?
Well, let me tell you, learning to read Arabic is far easier than it looks. Give it a week, set some time aside to copy each letter down and, believe me, you’ll be sounding out texts before you know it.
Portuguese is the official language of six African states, including Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome e Principe and Equatorial Guinea. These states are also referred to as Lusophone Africa. Portuguese has become a post-colonial language in Africa and one of the working languages of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community. It coexists on the continent with indigenous languages, mainly the Niger-Congo family languages in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau and Portuguese-based creoles in Guinea. There are approximately 14 million people who use Portuguese as their mother tongue on the continent, and over 30 million secondary speakers. to say hello in Portuguese, one says “Olá”.
Twenty-six African states form part of Francophone Africa, forming part of the top French-speaking countires on the continent. There are over 120 million French speakers who use the language as their mother tongue or secondary language. The highest percentage of people who speak French are from Gabon, Mauritius, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Sao Tome e Principe, Tunisia, Guinea, Seychelles, Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea. The second largest French speaking country is Algeria, with over 50 percent of the population being French speakers. Much of the central and western Africa states form part of Francophone Africa, including Morocco, Mauritania, Rwanda, Comoros and Djibouti. To say hello in French, one says “Bonjour”.
Other widely spoken languages of Africa include Berber, which is a popular dialect in North Africa, specifically in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mali and Egypt, with approximately 20 million speakers; Somali, which is a Cushitic language spoken in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya by approximately 20 million speakers; Fulani, which is widely spoken in western and Central Africa by approximately 18 million speakers; Rundi from Burundi which is spoken by over 10 million people; Kinyarwanda in Rwanda which is spoken by over 10 million speakers and Tigrinya, which has over 6 million speakers in Central Eritrea and Sudan. Chichewa is popular in Malawi with over 6 million speakers, and Spanish is also spoken in Equatorial Guinea by over 600,000 people.