Africa is a huge place. Over three times the size of the US, and almost three times the size of Europe with a population of over 1.2 billion, Africa is a diverse place to say the least, with the languages of Africa being equally diverse too.
Having hundreds of ethnic groups and minority languages, as well as European languages – the byproduct of colonization from years gone by – the African continent is the most linguistically diverse continent on the planet!
So here are the most spoken/important languages Spoken on the African continent…
Primary Official Languages
Whilst the continent of Africa itself doesn’t have any “official” languages, the countries in Africa do. The following are the most frequently occurring/well spoken official languages of African countries:
Arabic first arrived in Africa in the eighth century, arriving to the continent via trade routes from the Middle East. Initially just a trading language, native Africans began practicing Islam within only a few decades of trade.
Not long after, Islam became the dominant religion in North Africa, with Arabic (the language of Islam) becoming the region’s main religious (liturgical) language, whilst also remaining an important trading language too.
Over time, much of North Africa came under the rule of various Arabic-speaking empires and caliphates which soon led to Arabic becoming an important language in day-to-day life.
Surprisingly, this has continued to this very day, with Arabic serving as the official language of 15 African countries.
This includes: Algeria, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, South Sudan (unofficially), Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia and Western Sahara.
Yet, these countries don’t all speak the same type of Arabic, with each country/region of Africa having their own dialect of Arabic which is completely different to any other dialect of Arabic.
Ironically, despite being characterized as a Middle Eastern language, Africa actually has more Arabic speakers in total. Currently, there are roughly 150 million Arabic speakers in Africa, or roughly 62% of the world’s Arabic-speaking population.
The Dutch first arrived in Africa in the early-to-mid 1600’s. Here, they established a few trading outposts in West Africa before being expelled by more powerful countries like Portugal.
Sailing south, the Dutch (through the Dutch East India Company) eventually found the southernmost point of continental Africa and settled it, establishing Cape Town in 1652.
Over the next one and a half centuries, the Dutch continued to expand into what’s now South Africa and further north, spreading their language as they went. Establishing town and cities, the official language was Dutch.
Even after much of the Dutch colonies in Africa became British possessions, the descendants of the Dutch settlers, known as the “Boers”, continued to speak Dutch – or rather, their own dialect of it called Afrikaans.
Whilst most Afrikaans speakers are white Boers, there is a small minority of native African Afrikaans speakers too.
Despite years of racial tensions in South Africa resulting in many white Afrikaners leaving South Africa, many have stayed. Recognizing this, Afrikaans is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa, where it’s primarily spoken in the western half of the country.
Outside of South Africa, Afrikaans is also spoken in neighboring Namibia (where it is a recognized minority language) and to a lesser extent, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
All in all, Afrikaans is spoken by around 17.5 million people, both first and second language speakers.
The first English-speaking traders arrived in West Africa around 1530. Mostly looking to trade under the nose of the Portuguese authorities (then the world’s pre-eminent superpower), their contact was small-scale and irregular.
Over time, the English began to trade with the West Africans more, before eventually setting up trading outposts in the mid-17th century. The first part of what would become the British Empire.
As time progressed, more and more British forts appeared with large portions of Africa going to Britain during the Berlin Conference of 1884/85. Whilst the British often let the natives run themselves, they did leave troops to guard forts and important trading outposts.
In turn, this affected the languages of the continent. Under British rule, the official language was English, with it being the language of trade and diplomacy. After generations of British rule, many Africans began using English at home.
Even after African countries threw off the shackles of British imperialism, many native Africans still spoke English, whilst the language remained important as a government and diplomatic language.
For those reasons, many former British colonies chose to keep English as an official language of the country (usually partnered with a widely spoken indigenous language too).
Currently, English serves as the official language of 25 countries in Africa, where its spoken by a combined 237 million people, including first and second language speakers.
But the French weren’t just going to let the English/British have Africa all to themselves. About 100 years after the English first made contact with Africa, the French Compagnie de l’Occident trading company kicked the Dutch out of Senegal.
This marked the beginning of the French Colonial Empire in Africa, with France’s holdings slowly expanding over the years to include large portions of Northern, Western and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Much like the English was in the British-owned parts of Africa, French was the official language of the French-owned parts of the continent, with many Africans similarly beginning to speak French at home.
As such, even after these African countries got their independence from France (often by force), many similarly retained French as their official language, usually accompanied with a local indigenous language of some kind.
Spoken by 141 million people, French is the official language of 26 African countries, one more than English has, as well as the African Union. This makes French the most spoken language in Africa based on the number of countries it’s spoken in.
However, the dialect of French that’s spoken in Africa isn’t the same as the dialect of French spoken in France. Indeed, Africa has two main French dialects: African French and Maghrebi French, each with hundreds of sub-dialects.
During the late 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, Portugal dominated the Europe-Africa trading routes, having an extensive network covering the entirety of Africa, primarily focusing on West Africa.
Initially having a series of forts along the West African coat (as a part of their “trading outpost” style of colonial empire) the Portuguese soon controlled a series of African islands such as Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, with Portuguese serving as the official language.
The Portuguese soon became interested in having land holdings on continental Africa. To that end, they colonized small parts of Equatorial Guinea.
As time progressed, and other European powers called for the Berlin Conference, Portugal was given more holdings on continental Africa. Today, these holdings are known as Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.
In all cases, Portuguese was the official language of these colonies, with many natives learning it to further themselves. Even after they became independent, Portuguese remained an official language.
In every case except Equatorial Guinea, Portuguese remains as the language of day-to-day life. Whilst an official language in Equatorial Guinea, it’s only used in government, with other languages being used in day-to-day life.
Spoken across six different African countries, as well as being a working language of the African Union, there are an estimated 41.5 million native and second language Portuguese speakers in Africa.
When you think of the languages of Africa, chances are that you don’t think “Spanish”. Yet, you’d be surprised…
Although Spain attended the Berlin Conference, it didn’t gain much from it. Where other European countries got vast territories, Spain only got what’s now Equatorial Guinea (then known as Spanish Guinea).
Arriving in the country, Spain soon declared Spanish as the official language, and got to work ensuring the natives learned to speak it. Indeed, although the natives opposed it to begin with, many of them learned it.
Not long after, Spanish became the language of everyday life, whilst the various indigenous languages were used solely at home. Even after Equatorial Guinea’s independence in 1968, Spanish remained as the official language.
Yet the dialect of Spanish in Equatorial Guinea isn’t the same as the one spoken in Spain. Many of the local African languages have fused with Spanish to create the Equatoguinean Spanish dialect unique to the country.
Besides being spoken in Equatorial Guinea, Spanish is also an administrative language for the disputed state/territory of Western Sahara. Formerly part of the Spanish Empire, Western Sahara kept Spanish as an official language after Spain relinquished control.
However, nobody actually speaks Spanish there. As its territory is claimed by Morocco, the Moroccan government use French and Arabic for central administrative purposes.
Speaking of Morocco, there are two cities – Ceuta and Melilla – which are Spanish enclaves in North Africa. As Spanish cities (albeit autonomous ones), Spanish is the official language of both cities, with it also being the language of day-to-day life too!
Spanish is also spoken on the Canary Islands too, which whilst a part of Spain, are geographically a part of Africa.
All in all, there are 1.67 million Spanish speakers in Africa across three countries (Equatorial Guinea, Spain, Western Sahara/Morocco), making it the least spoken mainstream European language on the continent.
The native language of the Swahili people, the Swahili language (sometimes known as Kiswahili to distinguish it from the ethnic group who speak it) is the only widely spoken, indigenous African language in Africa.
A member of the Bantu language family – more specifically the Sabaki language sub-family – Swahili is native to the Swahili homeland in East Africa, namely Tanzania. Even today, not only is it the official language of the country, but also the language of day-to-day life too.
Having spread out in neighboring countries (such as Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi) over time, Swahili is also spoken in northeastern Malawi, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), northern Zambia and Mozambique and southern Somalia.
As a widely spoken language in the region, Swahili acts as a semi-official lingua franca of the region, used in trade and diplomacy. Indeed, as the language shares some things in common with Arabic, it is even used by Arabs trading in the region too!
Intriguingly, unlike other African languages that remained closed off to European languages, refusing to adopt European-sounding words and begrudgingly adopting the Latin alphabet and writing system, Swahili was mostly open to it.
Having been constantly surrounded by English and Portuguese, Swahili picked up many English and Portuguese words and phrases, most of which are still used today.
Mostly concentrated in East Africa, Swahili is also one of the official languages of the African Union with an estimated 150 million speakers on the continent.
Primary Cross-Border Languages
Due to how the borders in Africa were drawn (eg. using a ruler by men thousands of miles away) both ethnic and linguistic groups were split between two, three, four, sometimes even five countries.
Although devastating in the short-term, many of these linguistic groups have come to thrive cross-border, creating regions within several countries that all use a specific local language as the lingua franca, rather than the official language(s).
Not to be confused with the Somali language sub-family it’s a part of, the Somali language is the language of the Somali people, a Cushitic ethnic group indigenous to the Horn of Africa.
Originating in what’s now Somalia, before spreading out into neighboring countries, Somali has become quite well spoken in the region, so much so that it acts the region’s lingua franca.
Spoken by ethnic Somalis in Somalia, the disputed state of Somaliland, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, Somali is the official language of Somalia and the co-official language of Somaliland.
In Djibouti, Somali is a national language (a political, social and cultural language), whilst it’s a working language in the Somali Region of eastern Ethiopia and northeastern Kenya.
Although you probably wouldn’t guess it by looking at it on a map, Africa has a total of 21 million Somali speakers, not including those Somali speakers living abroad as a part of the Somali diaspora.
Unlike the other languages of Africa we’ve covered, Berber isn’t actually one language. Instead, it’s actually a cluster of closely related Afro-Asiatic languages spoken by the Berber people of North Africa.
As a set of closely related, yet separate languages, there are several main “dialects” of Berber, including Eastern Berber (spoken in Libya), Western Berber (spoken in Mauritania and Senegal) and Northern Berber (spoken in Algeria and Morocco) among many others.
Being a semi-nomadic people, Berber as a whole doesn’t really have a “homeland” to speak of. At least, not in the same sense that the Somali people, or Swahili people do anyway.
Despite this, in countries like Morocco and Algeria that have millions of Berber speakers in them, the governments of the respective nations have made local dialects of the language national and later, official languages of the country.
Combining first and second language speakers (mostly government officials), there are an estimated 12 million Berber speakers scattered across Africa.
This is not including the estimated two million Berber speakers who’ve left Africa for Europe and North American in search of a better life.
Other Major Languages
Beyond that, Africa is also home to some other major languages. Whilst spoken across borders, these haven’t become lingua francas in the same sense that Berber, Luo, Fula, Somali and Kikongo have been.
A Chadic language, Hausa is the native language of the Hausa people of West Africa. As with other indigenous African languages and peoples, when Africa’s borders were drawn, it sliced Hausa communities in two – sometimes literally so.
Due to this, Hausa is spoken in Niger, northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon and Chad (where the Hausa people originate from), where it has official language status in Niger and Nigeria.
Owing to the fact that it is such a popular language in West Africa, Hausa has become a popular trade language and semi-official lingua franca of the region, becoming even more popular than French and English.
It’s for this reason, why Hausa is also spoken in Ghana, Benin, Togo and parts of Sudan, whilst those countries have very few native Hausa peoples. Indeed, it’s so well spoken as a second language that it’s an official language of Ghana!
All in all, experts estimate that there are as many as 100 million Hausa speakers in Africa. According to these experts, Hausa has a surprising 50-60 million native speakers, and a further 30-40 million second language speakers.
If the highest estimates prove to be true, Hausa would arguably be the most spoken language in Africa that no one in the West has heard of!
The language of the famed Zulu people, the Zulu language, also known by its native name of isiZulu, is one of the eleven official languages of South Africa along with Xhosa, Afrikaans and English.
Although it’s spoken across the country by ethnic Zulus, the Zulu language itself is primarily spoken in the KwaZulu-Natal area in the east of the country, where it serves as the official language (and also happens to be where the Zulu people originate!)
Beyond being spoken in South Africa, the Zulu language is also spoken in Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), where it is a recognized minority language.
It is also spoken in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, albeit without any recognition.
Originally, Zulu was solely an oral (spoken) language with no writing system. The history of the Zulu people was recorded and retold solely via word of mouth, just as war, trade and commerce were done.
The arrival of Europeans, however, resulted in Zulu becoming a written language, with Europeans carefully transcribing every word in Zulu to create a comprehensive dictionary that’s still used today!
All in all, there are about 14 million Zulu speakers in Africa, 12 million of whom are first language speakers in South Africa, Lesotho and/or Eswatini, whilst the other two million are second language speakers mostly in those countries too.
The native language of the Xhosa people, Xhosa (also called isiXhosa to distinguish it from the ethnic group) is quite like the aforementioned Zulu in many ways, with both languages being native to South Africa and being a part of the Bantu language family.
Known for being quite unique as it is a “clicking” language, Xhosa is native to the Xhosa homeland in the eastern part of the Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces, this is where the majority of today’s Xhosa speakers live.
Due to how they’ve distributed geographically speaking, there are also minor Xhosa-speaking communities in the provinces of Gauteng (675,000), Free State (250,000), KwaZulu-Natal (220,000), Northern Cape (52,000), Mpumalanga (47,000) and Limpopo (15,000).
Curiously, despite being a widely spoken native language for centuries, the South African government refused to give the language official status until after Apartheid had ended, where it became one of the official languages of the country alongside Zulu.
As the two countries have strong political, economic and cultural ties, Zimbabwe has become home to 200,000 ethnic Xhosas, most of whom fled oppression in South Africa during Apartheid.
Spoken by a sizable minority in the country, the Zimbabwean government has officially recognized Xhosa as a minority language.
In spite of having no official recognition whatsoever, there are also small populations of Xhosa speakers in Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini, none of whom number more than 20,000.
Combining first and second language speakers, Xhosa is spoken by a combined 20 million people in Africa, most of whom are second language speakers.
What do you think of the languages of Africa? Do you speak any (besides English of course)? Tell me in the comments!