African Languages: A Detailed Look into the Languages of Africa

November 28, 2023
African Languages: A Detailed Look into the Languages of Africa

How many languages are spoken in Africa? In 2022, Statista reported that there are more than 2000 languages in Africa. However, if you’re curious to learn more about African languages, like the most common ones and which region it comes from, then keep on reading to learn more about them!

An Introduction to African Languages

African languages encompass a vast and diverse linguistic landscape, reflecting the continent's rich cultural heritage. The less common African languages vary hugely in terms of speaker numbers. Some have hundreds of thousands of speakers, while others have very few native speakers of the language and are teetering on the brink of extinction. The Oxford Press has published that there are about 308 critically endangered languages. About 100 of these endangered African languages are found in Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.


African Language Groups

Africa is home to 48 mainland countries and six island nations. The languages of those 54 nations can be sorted into four major language families. Considering how many countries are in Africa, it may seem surprising that the continent’s languages can be sorted into just four language families, but those classifications are not without controversy, as I will explore a little below. 


The Afroasiatic language family extends from North Africa along to the Horn of Africa and into Southwest Asia. Many languages in Africa are part of this group, which encompasses around 375 languages in total. Together, they have approximately 300 million speakers. 

Some of the most spoken African languages in this group include Arabic, Amharic, Somali, Oromo, Tamazight, and Hausa. Subfamilies of the Afroasiatic language group include the Semitic, Cushitic, Berber, and Chadic languages. 


The tonal Nilo-Saharan languages are something of an odd grouping, with linguists holding some heated discussions about which languages should and shouldn’t be considered members of this family. The Songhai, Koman, Gumuz, and Kadu languages are those that most often raise questions when it comes to their inclusion. 

Overall, there are over 100 languages in the Nilo-Saharan group, which covers an area of 

Sub-Saharan Africa includes Sudan, Chad, southern Egypt, and northern Tanzania; plus parts of Nigeria, DR Congo, and the Niger River. 

The most common African language in this group is Kanuri, with between four and five million speakers. Other major languages in it include Songhay and Nubian. 


Covering Central, West, and Southeast Africa, the Niger-Congo language family contains around 1,400 distinct languages (as opposed to dialects). It is the largest of the African language families in terms of both language numbers and speaker numbers. The Bantu branch of this language group in particular has a wide geographic spread. 

Around 85% of Africans speak one or more Niger-Congo languages. Swahili has more total speakers than any other Niger-Congo language, while Yoruba has the greatest number of native speakers out of any language in the Niger-Congo family. Igbo, Fula, Shona, and Zulu also have 10+ million speakers. 


Centered around the Namibia and Botswana deserts, Khoisan languages are notable for their click consonants. These tonal languages include five unrelated language families, including two language isolates (Sandawe and Hadza, which are both spoken in Tanzania). Altogether, some 30 languages are classed as Khoisan. They have a total of 300,000 to 400,000 speakers altogether. 

Other Language Groups in Africa

Languages from families outside of the African continent are also spoken there. Madagascar’s language – Malagasy – is Austronesian, for example, while Afrikaans is Indo-European. 

Many African creoles also use Indo-European lexifiers. You can read more about those by clicking the link below. 

Read more: Creole Languages

The Most Spoken Languages in Africa

Having looked at the main language groups, I want to examine some of the most spoken languages in Africa. I’ve mentioned a few of Africa’s most common languages above, so let’s start with those. 

What are the 10 most spoken African languages? Read on to find out. 


What is the most spoken language in Africa? It’s actually a close call between Arabic and Swahili. While Arabic has around 280 million speakers in total, making it the world’s sixth most spoken language, not all of them hail from Africa. In fact, there are around 150 million Arabic speakers in Africa.  


Swahili also has around 150 million speakers. It is used as a lingua franca in much of Africa, with many people speaking it as a second or third language in order to facilitate communication with those who don’t speak their native tongue. 


The total number of Hausa speakers is in the region of 75 million, with around 47 million of those speaking it as a first language. One of the major African languages on the western side of the continent, Hausa is spoken mainly in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Benin and Chad. 


Stretching across some 20 countries in Central and West Africa, Fula has 65 million speakers when all of its dialects are counted. This makes it one of the most spoken West African languages. Unlike most Niger-Congo languages, Fula isn’t tonal. 


Another Western African language with a vast number of speakers is Yoruba. It is spoken by somewhere between 45 million and 55 million people, most of them located in southwestern Nigeria. 


Igbo has around 45 million native speakers, mainly clustered in eastern Nigeria, where it has major language status. It is also recognized as a minority language in Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon. 


Also called Afaan Oromoo, this language is spoken by around 30 million people. They include more than 40% of Ethiopia’s population, as well as significant speaker numbers in Kenya, Somalia, and Egypt. 


Next on our African languages list is Amharic. More than 20 million Ethiopians speak Amharic, making it the third most common language in Africa. It is used as a lingua franca within Ethiopia, as well as being the native tongue of a large part of the country’s population. 


One of the most widely spoken Sub-Saharan African languages on the eastern side of the continent is Somali. Somali is spoken natively by well over 18 million people and is an official language in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somaliland, and Somalia, as well as a recognized minority language in Kenya. 


Zulu is spoken natively by around 12 million Africans, as well as being used as a second language by some 16 million people. It is one of 11 official languages in South Africa, where it is spoken by around 23% of the population. Also called isiZulu, this language is used in Lesotho and Eswatini as well. 

The Complete List of African Languages (Existing and Extinct)

A complete African languages list might be a little ambitious, given there are up to 2,000 languages to include and that some haven’t even been classified. However, I’ll cover some of the main languages below, grouped by each of the five regions of Africa. 

North Africa
Country Languages of African Descent Foreign Languages
Algeria Arabic, Berber (Tamazight), Amazigh French
Egypt Arabic, Amharic English, French
Libya Arabic, Berber (Tamazight), Siwi English, French
Morocco Arabic, Berber (Tamazight), Amazigh French
Sudan Arabic, Beja, Noblin English
Tunisia Arabic, Berber (Tamazight) French
Western Sahara Arabic, Berber (Tamazight), Domari, Tedaga Spanish
East Africa
Country Languages of African Descent Foreign Languages
Burundi Kirundi, Swahili French
Comoros Comorian, Swahili French, Arabic
Djibouti Somali, Afar French, Arabic
Eritrea Tigrinya, Tigre English, Arabic
Ethiopia Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, Somali, Wolaytta English
Kenya Swahili, Kikuyu, Luo, Kalenjin, Luhya, Kamba English
Madagascar Malagasy French
Malawi Chichewa, Tumbuka, Yao English
Mauritius Mauritian Creole English, French
Réunion Reunion Creole French
Rwanda Kinyarwanda French, English
Seychelles Seselwa Creole French English, French
Somalia Somali, Maay Maay Arabic
Somaliland Somali Arabic, English
Tanzania Swahili, Sukuma, Gogo English
Uganda Luganda, Runyankore, Luo, Lusoga, Ateso English
Central Africa
Country Languages of African Descent Foreign Languages
Cameroon Bantu languages, Fang, Sara, Bubi English, French
Central African Republic Sango, Gbaya, Banda French
Chad Sara, Arabic, Masalit, Goran French, Arabic
Congo Republic - Brazzaville Lingala, Kikongo, Monokutuba French
Democratic Republic of Congo Lingala, Kikongo, Tshiluba, Swahili French
Equatorial Guinea Fang, Bubi, Annobonese Spanish, French, Portuguese
Gabon Fang, Myene, Nzebi, Bapounou/Eschira, Bandjabi French
São Tomé & Principe Forro, Angolar, Principense Portuguese
West Africa
Country Languages of African Descent Foreign Languages
Benin Fon, Yoruba, Bariba, Dendi French
Burkina Faso Mossi, Dyula, Fula, Gourmantche French
Cape Verde Kabuverdianu (Crioulo) Portuguese
Côte D'Ivoire Dioula, Baoulé, Beté, Senufo, Anyin French
Gambia Mandinka, Fula, Wolof, Serer English
Ghana Akan, Ewe, Ga, Dagbani English
Guinea Fula, Soussou, Maninka, Kissi, Toma French
Guinea-Bissau Crioulo, Fula, Balanta, Mandinka Portuguese
Liberia Kpelle, Bassa, Grebo, Dan, Kru English
Mali Bambara, Fula, Dogon, Soninke, Tamasheq French
Mauritania Hassaniya Arabic, Pulaar, Soninke Arabic, French
Niger Hausa, Zarma, Tamasheq, Fulfulde French
Nigeria Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Kanuri, Tiv English
Senegal Wolof, Pulaar, Serer, Mandinka, Jola French
Sierra Leone Mende, Temne, Krio English
Togo Ewe, Kabye, Mina, Tem French
Southern Africa
Country Languages of African Descent Foreign Languages
Angola Chokwe, Kikongo, Kimbundu, Umbundu, Luvale, Lunda Portuguese
Botswana Setswana, Kalanga, Mbukushu, Taa English
Lesotho Sesotho, Phuthi English
Mozambique Chewa, Lomwe, Ndau, Tsonga, Makhuwa Portuguese
Namibia Oshiwambo, Khoekhoegowab, Afrikaans, Otjiherero English, Afrikaans
South Africa isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans, Sepedi, Setswana, Sesotho, Xitsonga, siSwati, Tshivenda, isiNdebele English
Eswatini siSwati English
Zambia Bemba, Nyanja, Lozi, Tonga, Chewa, Lunda, Kaonde English
Zimbabwe Shona, Ndebele, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Kalanga, Sotho, Nambya, Ndau, Chewa English


This might interest you: What Is the Hardest Language to Learn?


Extinct African Languages

Sadly, as we’re witnessing around the world, languages are dropping out of use, moving from being endangered to becoming extinct. More than 300 African languages are endangered at present and over 50 languages are entirely extinct. Examples of some of these include:

Baga Kaloum
Baga Sobané

The Importance of Learning African Languages

There are plenty of reasons to learn one or more of the different African languages. Businesses wishing to operate on the continent need to deliver their services in the most spoken languages in Africa, as well as in some of the less widely spoken local languages in areas where their company has a presence. 

Anyone wishing to travel across Africa would also do well to learn the basics or one or more of the most common languages in Africa, in order to help facilitate their travels. Making clear that you’ve made an effort to learn is a great way to show you respect for the local environment in which you find yourself. 

Of course, it’s also a wonderful experience to learn a language – whether an African language or another – for the sheer joy of it. If you are considering learning a new language right now, why not check out the link below to discover 15 of the best languages to learn?

And as with learning any language, there are plenty of associated insights to be gleaned. The intrinsic nature of the link between language and culture means that learning an African language may well deliver a host of cultural insights as part of the process. 

Read more: 15 Best Languages to Learn


Approximately 1,500-2,000 different languages are spoken in Africa, including hundreds of ancient African languages and African tribal languages. Clearly, I couldn’t list every single one in this article. However, I hope that the above has helped in terms of:

• Classifying languages by the four main language families of Africa

• Looking at the most popular African languages

• Sorting the top languages in Africa by region

• Remembering why it’s so important to get to grips with the most widely spoken African languages


By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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