What Languages are Spoken in Africa?

When I studied geography in school, the only languages on the continent presented to us were the colonial languages. If we want to build bridges, reduce conflicts and decolonize, the true cultures of the land must be known and acknowledged. While the history is somewhat tarnished, the existing colonial languages can serve as bridges between cultures. For example, you will find more tools to learn Wolof in French than in English. For this reason, it is still beneficial to be aware of the dominant business languages in the region.

Afrikaans, simplified/pidginized Dutch, is probably the most infamous colonial language due to the tragic circumstances of Apartheid in South Africa, and the successful recognition of South Africa’s 11 co-official native African languages: Afrikaans, English, NdebeleSotho, SesothoSwatiTsongaTswanaVendaXhosa, and Zulu. Only ~6.5M million Africans speak English as a native language, but since many countries use English in the government and schools, there are ~130 million second language English speakers in Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe. French has 115 million L1+L2 speakers in the former French colonies where it remains an official language: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Chad, Guinea, Rwanda, Burundi, Benin, Togo, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Djibouti,  Equatorial Guinea, Comoros, and Seychelles.  Portuguese still has a presence( ~30 million L1+L2 speakers ) in former colonies: Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe.

This presentation is misleading. Africa is actually one of the most linguistically diverse continents on the planet, and the african continent is home to over 2, 140 (30%) of the world’s more than 7, 111 languages.  There are at least 75 languages in Africa which have more than one million speakers. In Africa, the following languages are most commonly spoken:

  1. Arabic (140 Million Speakers in Africa alone), arguably another colonial language (imposed by the Middle East/Arabia rather than Europe) dominant in Northern Africa
  2. Swahili (100 Million L1+L2) has only 15 million native speakers; however, it is a lingua franca widely learnt in (south)eastern Africa (official in Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Uganda) as a second language
  3. Berber (56 Million) is the official language of Algeria and Morocco, and is a dialect continuum spoken in North Africa. Berber can also be written with the Tifinagh script, referred to as Amazigh, or thought of as a language family.
  4. Hausa (47 Million) is a Chadic language spoken in Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Cameroon, and Sudan.  It’s also used as a trade language(with an additional 20 million second language (L2) learners) throughout Central and Western Africa, including Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Congo, Eritrea Ghana, Sudan, and Togo.
  5. Igbo (44 Million) is spoken by one of three dominant tribes(Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa) in Nigeria, so the only place it has official status is in Equatorial Guinea. There are also a number of Igbo speakers in Cameroon.
  6. Yoruba (40 Million) is a West African language spoken in Benin, Nigeria, Togo and the diaspora as far abroad as the Caribbean.
  7. Fulani (25 Million), also known as Fula, Fulfulde, Pulaar, or Pular, is the most commonly spoken trade language among West Africans. Fulani is an official language in Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Gambia, Guinea (Conakry), Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger. 
  8. Amharic(22 Million) is an Afro-asiatic language closely related to Arabic. Amharic has maintained consistent government recognition and trade dominance in Ethiopia, since Ethiopia has never been subject to colonial rule. Amharic never adopted the latin alphabet and is still written in its own traditional Ge’ez script.
  9. Oromo(24.6 Million) is the most spoken Cushitic language, and rivals Amharic’s dominance in Ethiopia.
  10. Somali is the second most spoken Cushitic language(after Oromo) with ~16.6 million speakers, mostly in Somalia.
  11. Lingala is a Bantu language with ~15 million speakers in the DRC, Congo, and Central African Republic.
  12. Kinyarwanda, with ~12 million speakers, forms a dialect continuum with Kirundi (9 Million). These two languages share a high degree of mutual intelligibility.
  13. Shona is one of the most commonly spoken Bantu languages, with a total of 14.2 million speakers, mostly in Zimbabwe.
  14. Akan-Twi is spoken by 40% of Ghanians (~9 million) as a first language and 70% (~20 million) as a second or third language.
  15. Xhosa has 8.2 million native speakers in South Africa, and 19.2 million speakers total.
  16. Zulu (~10.3 Million) is a spoken by a quarter of South Africa’s population and recognized by half.
  17. Wolof (~10 Million) is a lingua franca in Senegal, Mauritania, and the Gambia.
  18. Tswana has 4 million speakers in Botswana and northern South Africa.

To make sense of the mind-boggling 2,140 languages, it can be helpful to group them into language families: Afro Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo (A&B), and Khoisan.

Just like knowing the colonial language can help bridge the gap into native languages, knowing the dominant official national languages can grant access to otherwise unaccessible tribal cultures. The following countries officially recognize national languages: Tswana is an official language in Botswana, MossiDyula and Fula are national languages in Burkina Faso, Kirundi is co-official in Burundi, Sango is co-official in the Central African Republic,  Comorian (a Swahili dialect) is co-official in Comoros, KikongoLingala, Swahili, and Tshiluba are national languages in the DRC, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Kituba is another dominant lingua franca in the neighboring Republic of the Congo, although it is not officially recognized), Tigrinya is used by the government in Eritrea, Sesotho  is official in Lesotho, Malagasy is an official language of Madagascar, Kinyarwanda is official in Rwanda, Ewe and Kabiye are national languages of Togo, Somali is an official language of Somali, and nationally recognized languages in Ghana are AkanDagaare/Wale, DagbaneDangmeEweGaGonjaKasem and Nzema.

Although resources are limited for many of these languages, just a little bit will get you farther than you think. The easiest starting point for African languages is the Peace Corp‘s and Foreign Service Institute‘s (FSI) materials.

(The Peace Corps offers free resources for English speakers to learn Tswana, Bambara (Mali), Bemba (NE Zambia), Chewa/Chinyanja(Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique), Ewe (Togo), Fante, Fon (Gbe language from Benin 1.7M), Fula, Pulaar, Hausa; Ife and Ikposso(Togo); Jola (Gambia), Kiswahili, Kwanyama, Kituba,Lingala, Luganda, Maasai, Mandinka, Moore(Burkina Faso’s Mossis),Oromo, Sesotho, Setswana, Siswati, Soninke, Susu (Guinea and Sierra Leone),Twi, Wolof, and many other African languages.

The following courses are offered by the Foreign Service Institute: Amharic,ArabicChinyanja,  Fula,  HausaIgboKirundiKitubaLingalaLugandaMoréShonaSwahiliTwi, and Yoruba.

Other general resources for all languages include: Indiana University’s National African Language Resource Centre, NALRC’s textbook series, Columbia University Library’s African Language Resources on the Net, Harvard’s opencourseware, ELIAS, torrents, OLAC catalog, abusuaman, memrise, afrilangues (french), and the comparative online Bantu dictionary. The African Language Materials Archive (ALMA) program has a large public collection of e-books and archived materials. The 200 Word Project, developed jointly by the African Language Program and the Geddes Language Center of Boston University, covers isiXhosa, Zulu, Swahili, Amharic, Igbo, Hausa, Wolof, and Twi.

Sometimes websites are available for specific languages: Shona, Malagasy, Oshikwanyama, Kwanyama (Oshivambo), Maasai, Ewe, Mandenkan, Sango, Bemba, Fulfulde, and Fulani. Learn Pulaar with ibamba‘s manual, and immerse yourself in Pulaar on this website. Learn Somali through this teaching agency, or website.

Harvard’s African Languages Department hosts a set of online introductory Amharic lessons. An impatient duolingo incubator applicant started teaching Amharic lessons on their own website and youtube channel, How to Speak Amharic. Other youtubers like MsBissirat, Amharic4Rastafari, Sheila Lamb, Learn Amharic language, and Lidj Yefdi have also made Amharic lessons. If Ethiopian food is your thing, try this glossary of Ethiopian food vocabulary. Pair FSI’s Amharic materials with memrise, accompanied by a great set of reference books.

Akan-Twi can be learned on this Twi app, this website, this Akan-Twi blog, a Twi e-learning website, the nykea app. To venture further into west Africa, also explore Ga.

The Peace corps has resources to help foreigners learn Bambara. Ankataa has Manding, resources and media for its study, alongside lessons for Bambara, Jula or Malinké etc. Bambara.org has a downloadable on-line lexicon. Also work through this book depository with this reference dictionary. Many of the resources like, this one, are written in French.

Peace corp Senegal introduces the world of Wolof to English speaking newcomers. Wolof resources has an excellent grammar reference, an annotated learning guide, text and media suggestions (radio, podcasts, TV… ). The Five College Centre for the Study of World Languages has CultureTalk in Wolof. 17 minute world languages has an online introductory phrasebook, as does this wordpress blog. A few other resources include this Wolof primer by donation, a Wolof learning app, or paid Wolof lessons.

Hausa lessons can be found online via a Hausa coursebook, basic Hausa course, and Hausa dictionary. Igbo lessons can be found online via learn Igbo Now, IgboNet, IgboStudy, and ezinaulo. Yoruba lessons can be found online via learnYoruba, uTexas’s Yoruba textbook, rutgers Yoruba grammar, YorubaBlog, and University of Georgia’s African Studies Institute’s online Yoruba lessons.

To explore the languages of Central Africa, try this Lingala lesson facebook page, Introductory Lingala blog, french-lingala dictionary, Luganda Phrasebook and coursebook, Bobangi, and 7000 language’s free Kituba course learning portal.

South African languages are taught on the HelloSouthAfrica App, the AfricanLanguages website, and the SAlanguages website. Zulu is taught through these short translated stories, and SOAS University’s virtual Zulu website. Ubuntu bridge offers isiXhosa courses, Xhosa talk trains vocabulary, and further resources are suggested on this blog. Sesotho can be learned through this website, internet archive’s sotho-english vocabulary book, and scribd sesotho language manual. Explore some Siswati phrases with this Siswati phrasebook. Try this app for Setswana or the Setswana peace corps course.

Here are some dictionary accompaniments for Lingala, Kinyarwanda, Kirudi, Chichewa, Umbundu, Kwanyama, Zulu(& w/ pronunciation), and Sesotho.

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