A guide on the most popular languages in Africa
What comes to your mind when Africa is mentioned? For some, it’s the wildlife and scenery. For others, their minds travel to the food and culture. Today we want your mind to embrace the diversity that lies in Africa through its languages. For anyone planning to travel to Africa, you need to have a grasp on the wording you would encounter there because not everyone speaks English. This article will give you a breakdown of the most popular African languages.
Swahili is the most commonly spoken language in all of Africa. It is estimated to have about 150 million speakers. Some refer to Swahili as the “Bantu language.” The language first originated in parts of other languages such as Arabic.
Swahili is the official language spoken in Kenya, The Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Uganda. Other countries spoken include Burundi, Somalia, Comoros Islands, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
Swahili is not a language that is considered difficult to learn. However, if you already know a bit of Arabic, that makes the learning process easier.
Fun Fact: Swahili is the language used in The Lion King.
Arabic is one of the six most common languages, with over 250 million speakers across the globe. It comes in different variations, mainly Classical Arabic (used for learning the language) and Modern Standard Arabic (used for communication among speakers). More than 20 countries have Arabic as their official language. Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco are a few countries that speak Arabic.
You can find traces of Arabic all over the English Language. For example, words such as coffee and algebra have Arabic origin.
Fun Fact: The Language is at least 1500 years old, and some scholars claim it is even older than that.
Read this article about holiday and tourism in Tunisia, one of the popular-speaking Arabic language countries in Africa.
The language of love is third to make it to our list; while not an African language, it is the official language in several African countries and thus cannot be ignored. In fact, a total of 26 countries in Africa speak French.
There are over 200 million French speakers worldwide. Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire, Sao Tome, and Senegal are examples of African languages where French is the official language.
Non-African countries that speak French include Canada, France, and Belgium.
Fun Fact: About 45% of words in the English language are of French origin. Examples of such terms are beret, champagne, and arcade.
Hausa is one of the most widely spoken languages in Nigeria, specifically Northern Nigeria. However, it is also said by Non-Nigerian folk in Africa and beyond. Benin, Togo, and Germany are other countries where Hausa is spoken. The language boasts of over 65 million native speakers and about 50 million speakers who use it as a second language.
It belongs to the group of languages known as Chadic languages. These languages are predominantly spoken in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad.
Hausa is featured on major foreign broadcasting stations such as British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Voice of Russia, and Radio France Internationale. It is the only Nigerian Language with this track record.
Fun Fact: Hausa has an advanced writing system; not only that, but it also has a braille system.
Yoruba is a popular language in Western Africa. It is one of the third most spoken languages in Nigeria, alongside Hausa and Igbo. Yoruba is spoken mainly by its native speakers in “Yorubaland” (Western Nigeria) and by a few others who use it as their Second Language. Yoruba is also used in other countries such as Benin and Togo. Yoruba exists in more than 15 dialects. A few of them include Ijesha, Ekiti, Ijebu, and Akoko.
Yoruba is not just a language but the name of an ethnic group in Nigeria. It is one of the three major ethnic groups.
Igbo is a prominent Nigerian language with its tentacles across Western and Central Africa. Igbo speakers total at about 18 million. It is mainly spoken in Eastern Nigeria, referred to as “Igboland.” It isn’t easy to trace the origin of Igbo as a language. In an attempt to translate the Bible, Missionaries developed a standard version of Igbo that unites all Igbo speakers.
A majority of Igbo speakers are bilingual since the official Nigerian Language is English. However, this means that they are surrounded by non-Igbo speakers outside Igbo territory and would have to resort to English to be understood.
Igbo is a tonal language, and it is written in Roman Script.
Oromo can be described as the half-brother of the most popular language spoken in Ethiopia- Amharic. It belongs to the Cushitic branch of languages and is the third most spoken language in Africa. However, Oromo is not just a language, and it is also an ethnic group in Ethiopia. The Oromo people make up about 40% of Ethiopia’s population.
Kenya, Somalia, and Egypt are other countries where Oromo is spoken. About 30 million people use this language.
In the 20th century, sometime between 1974 and 1991, people were banned from speaking or writing the language. In fact, it was considered a crime to use it.
Many of you may be new to this language. Amharic is the primary language spoken in Ethiopia by over 20 million speakers. It belongs to a group of languages referred to as Semitic languages and is the second most spoken one after Arabic. Semitic languages are languages that originated from the Middle East. Other Semitic languages are Arabic and Tigrinya.
Former rulers imposed the language on the nation to unify the country, and to an extent, they succeeded as it is now the official lingua franca in Ethiopia. However, a large portion of the nation does not speak or understand Amharic.
Amharic is such a national treasure the capital of Ethiopia is in Amharic. Addis Ababa means New Flower in Amharic.
Shona is predominantly spoken in Zimbabwe alongside English, with over 10 million speakers. Shona has three distinct dialects- Karanga, Zezuru, and Korekore. While the exact origin of the language cannot be traced, it stems from the Bantu/Nguni language group. It uses a Latin script for writing like many other languages in Southern Africa.
Shona also has different forms used for other purposes. For example, the low version is used casually, e.g., talking with friends and family at home, while the higher version is used when praying.
This is one of the most widely spoken languages in South Africa, with a coverage of about 10 million people. Other countries where you can find Zulu speakers include Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and Swaziland.
Zulu belongs to the Bantu language group and shares close ties with Xhosa and Ndebele. In fact, the similarities between Zulu and Xhosa are so many that many think they are the same language. This is why a Zulu speaker can understand Xhosa and vice versa.
There are two forms of Zulu language; standard Zulu and urban Zulu. The typical form is taught in schools and focuses on pure language. However, the urban form is used mainly for communication among the youths, and it borrows extensively from the English Language.
Zulu is not only a language but an entire tribe of people based in South Africa.
After reading this article, your knowledge of popular African languages should’ve expanded significantly. There’s no reason you shouldn’t go a step further in trying to learn one or two of these languages seeing how ground they cover not just in Africa but across the globe. Learning any of these languages is a chance to connect with a new culture.
Learn more about African languages.