Africa is the second largest continent in the world, both in terms of land area and population, with approximately 1.4 billion inhabitants. It is one of the most diverse continents globally, largely due to its high population density. It is therefore no wonder that linguists estimate that some 2,000 native languages are spoken in Africa.

African language families 

Native African languages are divided into four main families: 

· Afro-Asiatic languages: spoken by 350 million people in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region. 

· Niger-Congo languages: probably the largest language family in the world. They are spoken in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

· Nilo-Saharan languages: spoken by 50 million people in the upper parts of the Chari and Nile rivers. 

· Khoisan languages: 120,000 speakers and they include all the languages characterised by the use of clicks. 

This language classification is based on the studies carried out by the linguist Joseph Greenberg, author of The Languages of Africa published in 1963.

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Languages spoken in Africa

Despite the term “African language or tongue” sometimes being used, there is no one African language as such; rather, the inhabitants of the African continent use multiple different tongues and languages to communicate, work, have fun, buy and sell.

Some of the languages spoken in Africa are:

  • Arabic: the Arabic language is the most spoken language on the continent. In North Africa, it is used every day by 170 million people to communicate.
  • Amharic: it is the second most spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic. There are around 25 million speakers, the majority of whom are in Ethiopia.
  • Afrikaans: it is the third most spoken language in South Africa where there are around 23 million speakers.
  • Lingala: it is spoken in the Congo by more than 10 million people.
  • Somali: it is used by approximately 17 million speakers in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya.
  • Swahili: it is one of the official languages of the inhabitants of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and one of the most widely spoken in the East Africa region. In total, between 50 and 80 million people speak Swahili.
  • Yoruba: 20 million people speak Yoruba in the western region of Africa. It is the mother tongue of the people of Nigeria, Benin and Togo, as well as some communities in other areas of Africa, Europe and America.
  • Zulu: it is the language of the Zulu people made up of some 10 million speakers, the vast majority (more than 95%) live in South Africa.

European languages in Africa

One of the main impacts of the colonisation of Africa was the arrival of European languages to the content, where they are mainly used as lingua franca (or vehicular languages) in many countries today.

Languages such as German, English and French were brought to the continent by colonists to facilitate communication with the conquered communities. However, assimilating the languages of the colonists on this content was not as extensive as in the case of European territories.

In this respect, the linguist Salikoko Mufwene from the University of Chicago affirms in one of his studies that: “Traditional African kingdoms were not as assimilationist as the European empires… The kings relied on interpreters to translate to them what was coming from territories that they ruled but where people spoke different languages, there is no particular reason why we should be surprised that there are so many languages spoken in Africa.”

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Interesting facts about languages spoken in Africa

More than 500 different languages are spoken in Nigeria. The official language is English, but many people speak Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Urhobo, Ibibio, Edo, Fulfulde and Kanuri. These languages belong to three different families: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo. Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba are considered majority languages.

Swahili is the most spoken Niger-Congo language. Furthermore, it is one of the languages with the most speakers in the whole of Africa and is the lingua franca of western Africa. Teaching Swahili is compulsory in schools in Kenya.

Many of the characters from Disney’s “The Lion King” use words in Swahili as names.

Malagasy is different to the other languages of Africa. Before the French colonised the island of Madagascar, it was inhabited by the people of South-East Asia. For this reason, it is related to other languages spoken in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Polynesia.

There are 11 official languages in South Africa: English, Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Swati, Venda and Sotho. According to the country’s census, only 2% of South Africans speak one of these languages as their main language.

The Ge’ez system is used to write Amharic and Tigrinya. This writing system is called “Fidel”, which means writing or alphabet. Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, while Tigrinya is mainly spoken in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa.

Nama language (Khoekhoe) is the only officially recognised Khoisan language. It is the official language in Namibia, where it is used in education as well as in the media.

Many Khoisan languages are endangered.

Only six Nilo-Saharan languages have more than one million speakers: Luo, Kanuri, Kalenjin, Zarma, Dinka and Lugbara.

Undoubtedly, the large variety of languages spoken in Africa would enable numerous articles to be written about them. What would you like us to expand on in the next article?