Africa’s a vast continent with 54 separate nations, and a total population of 1.2 billion people. Naturally, with so many different nations, and the large size of the continent itself – it’s no surprise that Africa is home to many languages. This is also because Africa is where humans have lived the longest.
Historical surveys indicate that 2,000 languages are spoken in Africa, and recent studies place it well over 3,000. Africa is a land of linguistic diversity and many countries have chosen to use the language of their former colonial masters as their official language, these include English, French, and Portuguese.
But when it comes to the local languages, they fall into three families, Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, and Niger-Congo.
These linguistic families include many of the languages listed below and are distinguished based on geography. Afro-Asiatic languages are mostly spoken in North Africa, Central Sahara and the Horn of Africa.
Nilo-Saharan languages are found in Central and Eastern Africa while the Niger-Congo languages are spoken in Central, Southern, and Eastern Africa.
Here are the 10 most spoken languages in Africa:
Arabic is spoken by 280 million people worldwide and more than 140 million people in Africa. It’s also the most spoken language in Africa, however, it’s concentrated only in Northern Africa.
It’s the official language in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Eritrea among other countries, and spoken in many more countries across Africa.
Swahili, also known as Kiswahili is spoken by over 100 million people in Africa and it’s believed to have originated from a combination of other languages including Arabic. Even though it’s spoken by 100 million people, only 15 million people speak Swahili as their first language.
The language finds its origin among the coastal areas of Kenya and Tanzania and is widely spoken in Central, Southern and East African areas.
It’s the national language in Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and widely spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Rwanda and Burundi, Somalia, and the Comoro Islands.
Hausa is the third most spoken language in Africa. It’s among the most spoken Chadic languages in the African continent and belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family. Hausa is predominantly spoken in Nigeria as a first language and spoken in Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Congo, Eritrea, Ghana, Togo, and Sudan.
The language finds its origin from a dialect in Kano, Nigeria and has over 40 million native and second-language speakers and is used in business and education, and is even taught in universities because of its predominance in literature.
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Amharic is the second-largest Semitic dialect in Africa after Arabic. Amharic has over 21 million speakers in Ethiopia, where it’s the national language and it is also spoken by 3 million emigrants that live outside of Ethiopia.
Amharic uses its own alphabet, unlike other African languages that use Arabic or Latin letters. The ancient language is mostly spoken in Ethiopia and is the most spoken Semitic language after Arabic. It’s a branch of the Afro-Asiatic linguistic family and is written in the Ge’ez or Ethiopian script.
English was introduced to Africa after the colonization of many countries by the British. English has been adopted as a national language by many former British colonies and is being spoken by 23 countries in Africa.
These countries include Botswana, Cameroun, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, St. Helena, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Yoruba belongs to the Niger-Congo language family. It accounts for over 30 million speakers in Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. It is primarily spoken in West Africa. The language is the mother tongue of Yoruba people who live in Nigeria and it has many dialects as well. Yoruba is taught at primary, secondary and university levels.
Oromo is a Cushitic language that is primarily spoken in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Egypt. Oromo is spoken by over 30 million people in Africa. The Oromo people form over 40% of the total population in Ethiopia, thus making them the largest ethnic group in the region.
French, just like English was introduced to Africa because of colonization. The influence of French has resulted in the formation of Francophone Africa. It’s a formation of twenty-six African states that form top French-speaking African countries. There are over 120 million people in the African continent that speak French either as their mother tongue or as a secondary language.
French is spoken widely in the region of Abidjan, Ivory Coast or Libreville, Gabon. Among the countries that speak French in Africa include Togo, Senegal, Seychelles, Rwanda, Re-Union, Niger, Mali, Madagascar, Guinea, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Congo, DRC, Algeria, Chad, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Burundi.
Portuguese is one of the three languages that was introduced to the continent of Africa because of colonization. It’s now the official language of six African nations that include Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Sao Tome e Principe, and Equatorial Guinea. The number of native Portuguese speakers in Africa is around 14 million while 30 million speak Portuguese as a secondary language.
Igbo is one of Nigeria’s official languages. It finds speakers in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea as well. Igbo falls under the Niger-Congo linguistic family and has over 20 dialects and out of these 20 dialects, Central Igbo is the more prominent one. The language was made famous by author Chinua Achebe. Currently, Igbo has over 20 million speakers in Africa.
Africa is a linguistically diverse country with multiple languages and dialects spoken in the same region, as noted above. To understand Africa, one must understand the prominent languages as they define the culture and tradition of the continent as a whole and of the different countries in it as well.
Each language has a distinctive history, tradition, and culture that is being followed to this day by millions of people spread across the continent of Africa.
Africa is known to have a rich oral tradition and to see these languages prosper and to be spoken by so many people is a testament to the determination of cultural stronghold and influence among all the people of Africa.
Even if you can’t make a trip to the beautiful continent, you can always have a piece of Africa with you at home.