Put your finger on the linguistic map of any African country, and a multitude of languages are likely to be heard there. The Niger-Congo region alone is home to speakers of more than 1000 languages. Here are the top 17 most commonly spoken languages in Africa.
Sources: nairaland.com, nationsonline.org
This article was first published Feb. 18, 2014.
Dholuo is a Nilo-Saharan language spoken by around 6 million people in Africa, especially the Luo group in Kenya and Tanzania. The language is closely related to the Sudanese languages Nuer, Bari, Jur chol and Lep Achol.
Afrikaans is a hybrid of several Dutch dialects brought to Africa by Dutch settlers in the 18th century. Today it is spoken in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. It’s a dynamic language that borrows from French, German, Portuguese, Malay and a few other languages. There are nearly 7 million Afrikaans speakers in South Africa and it has one of the largest distributions of any language in the country. There are 15-to-23 million Afrikaans speakers worldwide.
Xhosa is one of the official languages of South Africa and is spoken by about 7.69 million people. Xhosa is a tonal language, so a consonant or vowel can have a different meaning depending on how it’s pronounced. Some of the most distinguishing features in Xhosa are the click consonants made by clicking the tongue.
More than 10 million people in South Africa know this beautiful language, spoken mostly in the eastern part of the country. Its tongue clicks are a unique facet found only in other indigenous South African tribal languages such as Xhosa which fall into the Bantu language group. Zulu is written with Latin characters (the ! denotes a tongue click), but was not recorded in writing until European missionaries descended upon South Africa. Today, Zulu has experienced a resurgence and is used widely in the South African media.
Sources: africanlanguages.com, en.wikipedia.org
Portuguese is an official language in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe and Equatorial Guinea. African Countries of Portuguese Official Language (PALOP) exists as an organization in Africa dedicated to spreading the Portuguese culture. There are roughly 14 million Portuguese speakers in Africa.
Somali is an Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Somalia, the Somali diaspora, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya. It is the second most commonly spoken Cushitic language after Oromo. As of 2014, an estimated 15 million people in Africa spoke Somali.
Fulani is spoken across 20 African countries in West and Central Africa. Part of the Niger-Congo language family, it is used as the first language by some groups in Guinea, Cameroon and Sudan. Fulani is an official language of Senegal, Nigeria, and Guinea. It’s difficult to pin down exactly how many people speak Fulani regularly. A 2011 estimate puts African Fulani speakers at 18 million on the continent.
This is a family of dialects popular in North Africa, specifically in Algeria and Morocco. Smaller communities in Libya, Tunisia, Mali, Egypt and a few other countries speak the language as well. Berber has been a constitutional national language of Algeria since 2001 and of Morocco since 2011. An estimated 20 million people speak Berber.
More than 24 million people speak the native language of the Igbo, an ethnic nation found in Southeast Nigeria who continue to struggle for an independent state. While there are more than 20 dialects — all written in Latin characters on account of British colonization — Central Igbo is the most prevalent dialect. Linguists are in awe of this tonal language. It features words that sound the same, but a slight change in tone will alter the entire meaning. It also integrates proverbial expressions and fused words, such as “ugbo igwe” (the words vehicle and iron), which together mean train.
More than 30 million Nigerians speak this language, mostly in the southwestern states, but it’s also widely spoken in Benin, Togo, and, as a result of the Atlantic slave trade and the diaspora, in Brazil, Cuba, and other Caribbean islands. The Aku — freed Yoruba slaves from Sierra Leone — wrote one of the first West African dictionaries in the Yoruba language in 1849. Categorized in the Niger-Congo linguistic family, Yoruba is a varying tonal language written in mostly Latin letters. There is an Arabic influence found in some Yoruba words.
Sources: africa.uga.edu, en.wikipedia.org
A Cushitic language named after the Biblical character Cush, Oromo is an Afro-Asiatic language group found mainly in the Horn of Africa and spoken by more than 30 million people. You’ll hear it mostly in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Egypt. It’s not the official language of any of these countries, but the Oromo people are one the largest ethnic groups in the region, especially in Ethiopia, where 95 percent of Oromo speakers live.
Sources: omniglot.com, en.wikipedia.org
Parlez-vous Francais, Afrique? Because of widespread colonization by France, more than 90 million Africans on or off the continent have a Francophone tongue. The ubiquity of French dialogues led to Creole languages — a fusion of French with indigenous languages such as Swahili, Wolof, and Kikongo. In countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, Rwanda, and Cote d’Ivoire, French is used commonly in society and business. Many linguists now consider Africa to have ownership of post-colonial Francophone languages, and the subsequent creation of an “African French” language. Bon!
Amharic is a Semitic language — one of a big family of languages from North Africa and the Middle East that also include Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Amharic is the most widely spoken of this type in the world besides Arabic. It is the official language of Ethiopia, and millions of people outside of the country use it. There has not been an established method of writing Amharic in Latin characters, therefore it holds its own unique script with 33 different characters. Today, more than 18.7 million people speak Amharic in Africa.
Sources: brittanica.com, en.wikipedia.org
If you’re able to read this, then you might just be one of the 700-million-plus Africans for whom English is a first, second, or third language. English spread around the world because of colonization, then for socio-economic-political reasons. In Africa, it is the primary language (but often not the most-spoken) of Cameroon, Botswana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana…the list goes on. In South Africa, because of the polyglossic nature of the citizens, it is given equal official status with 10 other languages. Many pidgin-English dialects have been formed in Africa such as Nigerian pidgin.
Sources: brittanica.com, en.wikipedia.org
Particularly in Western and Central Africa, this lingua franca is used as a first or second language by more than 50 million people. Because of many Muslim generations of Hausa speakers and constant pilgrimages to holy cities from Sub-Saharan Africa, Hausa is also spoken in much of North Africa. As an indigenous national language, it is used in Niger and Nigeria. It is normally written in mostly-Latin letters because of British colonization’s translated texts, but was also written with Ajami — a particular Arabic alphabet — since the 17th century.
Sources: brittanica.com, en.wikipedia.org
No one’s sure exactly how many millions of Africans use Swahili as a first, second, or third language, but it is estimated at more than 100 million. Most Swahili speakers (the term used in the non-Kiswahili speaking world) don’t use it as a first language — mostly second or third — although many have it as a second first language (confusing?) mainly in countries such as Uganda or the DRC. It is the official language of Tanzania, and is verging on being the same in Kenya. It is so popular that many universities abroad offer it as a foreign language major or minor. “Hakuna matata!”
“Salaam!” The most widespread official language in Africa is Arabic. It is the official language of Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, and the co-official language of Eritrea, Morocco, Chad, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, and Western Sahara. A liturgical language of the world as well as of social speech, it is spoken by 1.62 billion people globally. Of those, 422 million are first-language speakers of Arabic, and more than 100 million are in Africa, with 54 million in Egypt alone. This is the Arab world, habibi!