Solo Traveller: Quick Facts on most spoken African Languages

When you’re planning a trip to Africa, you will most likely come across all sorts of information. The news always shows the most negative aspects of Africa, which is only part of the day to day Africa that I know and love. Unfortunately there are very few reports about all of the wonderful and great things happening on the African continent, so it’s not uncommon to feel nervous about touring Africa. But whats strange is that i have listened to a lot of fellow Africans being scared of visiting any AFrican countries due to their perception of the continent. One common feature they cited was language barrier. I can agree with the language barrier as a challenge. I was got into a cab close to midnight in Blaise Diagne International in Senegal and the cab driver only spoke French. We only communicate signs as i explained to him that i was headed to Saly, a beachside resort town in Senegal. I received a few emails requesting i do a quick blog on the language landscape across Africa. So here goes nothing.

Language: Not only is Africa the second most populous continent in the world with over one billion people, but it is also home to the highest linguistic diversity in the world, with over 1500 different languages. African languages form part of four language groups, namely Afro-Asiatic covering Northern Africa, Central Sahara and the Horn of Africa, Nilo-Saharian covering Central and Eastern Africa, Niger-Congo covering Central, Southern and Eastern Africa and Khoisan, covering the western part of Southern Africa. If you’re worried you’re going to get stuck at the airport in Tanzania forever because you can’t direct your taxi driver in fluent swahili, stay calm.

You’ll be mighty relieved to discover that despite the 1,500-2,000 local languages spoken in Africa, English is actually an official language in many countries (along with German or French in a few countries!). Don’t miss out by being lazy and relying solely on English though; learn some key phrases of the local dialects especially the most common ones.

Swahili is the most spoken language in Africa, with over 100 million speakers. Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia and is the second most spoken language in the country after Oromo, with over 21 million speakers. Yoruba is one of West Africa’s most spoken languages, accounting for over 30 million speakers in Nigeria, Benin and Togo, and it is one of Nigeria’s official languages. It is also widely spoken in the West African region. Oromo is spoken by over 30 million people in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Egypt. Hausa is one of Nigeria’s official languages, and one of the most spoken Chadic languages on the continent, with over 40 million native and second language speakers. One of Nigeria’s official languages, Igbo is spoken by over 20 million people, with a significant amount of speakers in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

IsiZulu, or Zulu, is one of South Africa’s official language, and has over 10 million speakers. It is a member of the Bantu/Nguni family of languages, and is spoken mainly in eastern South Africa. Shona is the most spoken language in Zimbabwe, with over 10 million speakers in a population of over 14 million. Arabic is an official language in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Eritrea… the list goes on! It’s also widely spoken in countries where it hasn’t yet been recognized as an official language.

Portuguese is the official language of six African states, including Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome e Principe and Equatorial Guinea. Twenty-six African states form part of Francophone Africa, forming part of the top French-speaking countries on the continent. There are over 120 million French speakers who use the language as their mother tongue or secondary language. A general language is ENGLISH which is spoken in spoken in Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Other widely spoken languages of Africa include Berber, which is a popular dialect in North Africa, specifically in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mali and Egypt, with approximately 20 million speakers; Somali, which is a Cushitic language spoken in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya by approximately 20 million speakers; Fulani, which is widely spoken in western and Central Africa by approximately 18 million speakers; Rundi from Burundi which is spoken by over 10 million people; Kinyarwanda in Rwanda which is spoken by over 10 million speakers and Tigrinya, which has over 6 million speakers in Central Eritrea and Sudan. Chichewa is popular in Malawi with over 6 million speakers, and Spanish is also spoken in Equatorial Guinea by over 600,000 people.

What is most important when travelling Africa is that each region, community, district can have its own specific dialect. That is what makes Africa more interesting, the diversity of the languages. For language enthusiasts, Africa can be a goldmine of exploring different dialects and syntaxes.

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