Africa is the most linguistically diverse continent on Earth. I confess it’s taken me a while to write this article, as the topic of African languages is just huge. There are an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 languages in Africa. As such, any business with African language goals is likely to need plenty of support with translation.
I’ll be looking at all aspects of the languages of Africa below – not just how many languages are spoken in Africa, but which are the most common African languages, how languages are split across regions and more. Like I say, it’s a vast topic. Shall we get started?
An Introduction to African Languages
How many languages are spoken in Africa? As I mentioned above, estimates put this figure at between 1,500 and 2,000 languages. Of those, at least 75 have over a million speakers. This figure really emphasises how diverse Africa is in language terms.
The less common African languages vary hugely in terms of speaker numbers. Some have hundreds of thousands of speakers, while others are spoken by just a few hundred people and are teetering on the brink of extinction. UCLA reports that over 300 African languages are endangered. Between them, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia and Nigeria are home to over 100 of these.
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 that includes Sudan, Chad, southern Egypt, northern Tanzania and 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.
Centred 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 Africa language with vast numbers 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 recognised 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 then 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 Africa languages over 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 recognised 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 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)
Ok, so 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 the African Union in turn.
North African Languages
North Africa is home to Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Western Sahara. The most spoken African language there is Arabic, with other major languages including:
• Berber (Tamazight)
Southern African Languages
Southern Africa is home to Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Eswatini, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Between them, the countries speak a wide range of languages, with some of the most used including:
Interestingly, Taa, spoken in the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa, has a reputation as being one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn. You can check out other challenging languages to study by clicking the link below.
Read more: What Is the Hardest Language to Learn?
East African Languages
Countries in East Africa include Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Réunion, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Somaliland, Tanzania and Uganda. Some of the most commonly spoken African languages in them include:
West African Languages
The 16 countries that make up West Africa are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte D'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. The languages of West Africa that are spoken in them include:
Central African Languages
The countries of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo Republic - Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and São Tomé & Principe make up the Central Africa region. Some of the main African languages spoken in these countries include:
• Pidgin English
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 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