Considering the size of this enormous continent, it should come as no surprise that the one billion+ residents of Africa speak a huge variety of different languages. Although it’s difficult to calculate an exact number, since many of these are spoken by small groups of people, many language experts estimate that Africa may play host to as many as 2,000 different languages! Obviously, we won’t be discussing all of those in this article. But we can briefly talk about the most widely spoken languages in this vast, ethnically diverse region of the world.
African languages fall into four groups. These include:
- Afro-Asiatic: This category consists of approximately 200 languages spoken in Northern Africa.
- Nilo-Saharian: Speakers of this group of about 140 different languages live throughout Eastern and Central Africa.
- Niger-Congo: This category is made up of more than 1,000 languages that are spoken by approximately 200 million people and spans over two-thirds of the continent.
- Khoisan: The smallest group of African languages is the Khoisan category, which includes about 30 languages spoken by people in both the Western and Southern parts of the continent.
Although Arabic, French and English are spoken widely throughout many African countries, there are other commonly spoken African languages that visitors to the continent should be – at the very least – aware of. These include the following:
- Swahili – With more than 100 million speakers, Swahili is the most commonly spoken African language on the continent and falls under the Niger-Congo language family. Linguists believe it originated primarily from Arabic, and it is the official language of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. But Swahili is also spoken in several other African countries, including Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique and the Comoros Islands.
- Amharic – Another of the most commonly spoken African languages is Amharic, which is the official language of Ethiopia. Language experts believe that Amharic is a Semitic language that originated in the Middle East. It falls under the Afro-Asiatic category of languages.
- Yoruba – Spoken by over 30 million people throughout West Africa, Yoruba is one of Nigeria’s official languages and falls under the Niger-Congo category. In addition to Nigeria, Yoruba is also spoken by people living in Benin and Togo.
- Oromo – This Afro-Asiatic language is spoken by an estimated 30+ million people living throughout the Horn of Africa, including the countries of Kenya, Somalia, Egypt and Ethiopia.
- Hausa – Another one of Nigeria’s official languages is Hausa, which falls under the broad category of Afro-Asiatic languages. Hausa is also spoken by people in several other African countries, including Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Ghana, Sudan, Togo, Cameroon, Chad, Congo and Central African Republic.
- Igbo – Yet another of Nigeria’s official languages is Igbo, which is a member of the Niger-Congo family. In addition to Nigeria, Igbo is spoken by people in Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon.
- Zulu – This member of the Niger-Congo family is one of the official languages of South Africa. Language experts estimate that about 10 million people speak Zulu, and most of them reside in the eastern region of South Africa.
- Shona – One of the most commonly spoken languages in Zimbabwe is Shona, which falls under the Niger-Congo category. You’ll also find people in both Botswana and Mozambique who speak Shona.
Not even the most seasoned language professional could possibly be fluent in all African languages, and it’s fair to say that many of these are not the easiest to learn. But if you visit this diverse, beautiful and captivating continent, you should at the very least have a basic understanding of which languages you’ll encounter during your visit. Achieving fluency in any of the African languages may not be possible, but you should try to learn some of the basics before your visit, so that you can more easily navigate during your stay. And, as is always the case, it’s much more respectful of the peoples and culture of a region if you are able to at a minimum speak a few words of their native language.