How many languages are spoken in Nigeria? What is the official language of Nigeria? Where do the languages spoken in Nigeria originate from?
Yes, that’s right, this week I’m putting Nigeria under the spotlight. Home to 525 native languages, many of which have been around for four millennia, Nigeria makes for a fascinating study from a linguistic perspective.
I’ll dive into plenty of detail below. If you want to look at the language of Africa more broadly first, simply click the link.
Read more: African Languages: A Detailed Look into the Languages of Africa
A Quick Look into the History of Nigerian Languages
As is so often the case, there’s plenty of history and politics involved when you begin to look at the languages of Nigeria. For example, the Nigerian official language is English, as a result of former colonial rule. It’s used for education and by the government and is spoken as a second language by some 60 million Nigerians. However, it is not widely spoken natively across the whole country. In the northeast, for example, only 1% of the population speaks Nigeria’s official language natively.
In terms of native speaker numbers, several languages that have been around for thousands of years are the dominant languages in Nigeria. Some of the most widely spoken include Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo.
Nigeria’s history has also led to the evolution of Nigerian Pidgin, which is an English-based creole. With around 30 million speakers, it serves as a lingua franca, alongside Nigerian Standard English.
The Language Groups in Nigeria
Nigeria’s hundreds of native languages can be sorted into just three language groups: Afroasiatic, Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo. The country is also home to a number of Indo-European languages.
Afroasiatic Language Group
The most spoken Afroasiatic language in Nigeria is Hausa, but it is far from the only one. The Afroasiatic language family also includes Margi, Bade, Arabic and many other Nigerian languages. Research has shown that the majority of these languages date back for around 4,000 years.
Niger-Congo Language Group
The Niger-Congo language family is huge. It includes languages spoken across much of Africa. In Nigeria, those languages include Fula, Tiv, Jukun, Edo, Igbo, Igala, Idoma, Nupe, Gwari, Yoruba, Efik, Ibibio, Anang, Ekoi, Awak, Waja, Waka, Tula and more.
Nilo-Saharan Language Group
The main language in Nigeria from the Nilo-Saharan group is Kanuri. Bagirmi and Zerma are also from this tonal language family, which is the least represented of the three main language groups in Nigeria.
Indo-European Language Group
I mentioned English above, but it’s not the only Indo-European language used in Nigeria. The country is also home to a million French speakers, almost all of whom speak it as a second language rather than natively.
The Official Language of Nigeria
What language is spoken in Nigeria? In official terms, it’s English. English has been Nigeria's official language for decades and is the country’s most widely spoken language. Somewhere between 50% and 70% of Nigerians speak English. It has a distinctive form – Nigerian Standard English – and has spawned Nigerian Pidgin, a widely spoken creole that is used for day-to-day interactions in many parts of Nigeria.
As well as being the language of government and education in Nigeria, English is also used in the entertainment sector (most notably in film and television) and on the internet. Its extensive use means that fluency in English is essential for those who live and work in some areas of Nigeria, yet very few people speak it natively. Indeed the total number of native English speakers in the whole of Africa is estimated to be in the region of seven million people.
The Languages in Nigeria
I want to look now at some of the major languages in Nigeria, aside from English as the Nigerian national language. I should start by saying that accurate speaker numbers are notoriously hard to obtain when it comes to the languages of Nigeria, so the numbers below should be seen as broadly indicative.
It’s also worth noting that not all languages in Nigeria are written. The country is also home to three sign languages: Nigerian Sign Language, Hausa Sign Language and Bura Sign Language.
They may not be official languages of Nigeria, but some of the country’s most widely spoken languages include:
• Hausa – 52 million speakers. Hausa is spoken largely by Nigeria’s Muslim population and predominantly in the north of the country.
• Yoruba – 44 million speakers. Nigerians have spread the use of Yoruba around the world, as well as speaking it in Nigeria. The language has spread so much that globally it is the most spoken Nigerian language.
• Igbo – 40 million speakers. Igbo is widely spoken in Nigeria, as well as increasingly in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, with Nigerian migrants spreading its use to those countries.
• Fulfulde – 15 million speakers. Fulfulde is spoken mainly in northern Nigeria by the Fulani diaspora, as well as across the Sahel.
• Kanuri – 10 million speakers. Kanuri has two main dialects (Manga Kanuri and Yerwa Kanuri) and three tones (high, low and falling).
• Tiv – 4 million speakers. Tiv is the largest of the Tivoid group of languages. It is spoken mainly in the state of Benue.
• Ijaw – 3 million speakers. Traditionally spoken by the Ijo people in southern Nigeria, the Ijaw languages are a branch of the Niger-Congo language group.
• Edo – 2 million speakers. Also called Bini, Edo is spoken in Edo State. Its use dates back to Igodomigodo, which later became the Benin Empire.
• Annang – 1 million speakers. Annang is also called Western Ibibio. It is spoken by the Annang people in southern Nigeria.
• Arabic – 1 million speakers. The Shuwa Arab community speaks Arabic in Nigeria, while Arabic is also spoken in several towns dotted around the country. Interstingly, many words in both Hausa and Fulfude have been borrowed from Arabic.
• Igala – 1 million speakers. Igala is spoken in Kogi State, which is notable both for bordering 10 other states and for being the home to the confluence of the Niger and Benue rivers.
In addition to these languages, there is Nigerian Pidgin. Nigerians sometimes refer to this simply as “Pijin” or “Broken” and its use extends across West Africa. Nigerian Pidgin has its own writing system and is widely used by different ethnic groups whose languages are otherwise mutually unintelligible.
Top Languages Spoken by Region
As well as speaker numbers, I think it might also be interesting to consider how regional variation contributes to the Nigerian languages map.
We can see, for example, that both Hausa and Kanuri are important Nigerian languages in the northeast of country, where they are spoken by 31% and 28% of household respectively. Fulfulde is spoken by 11% of households there, Bura by 4% and Shuwa Arabic by 4%. Marghi, Kare Kare and Bachama are each spoken by 2% of northeastern Nigerian households, while Mandara, Higgi, Kilba, Kibaku, English and Mafa are spoken by 1%.
Hausa is the dominant language across the rest of the northern Nigerian states, as well as those in the Northeast.
The North Central region of Nigeria, running along the Niger and Benue rivers, is home to a wide range of languages. Some of the most common Nigerian languages spoken there include Nupe, Kambari, Gbagyi, Dibo, Gbari, Jarawa, Gade, Alago, Eloyi and Agatu, with dozens of other languages also spoken in the region.
Southeastern/southern Nigeria is home to a grouping of nine densely populated states that are collectively known as the Niger Delta. A whole host of languages are spoken in this region. Igbo dominates, while there are also sizeable groups of Izon, Edo, Igala, Ibibio, Bjagham, Tiv, Bokyi and Samba language speakers. Smaller clusters of speakers of dozens of other Nigerian languages also reside in this region.
Southwest Nigeria is predominantly home to Yoruba speakers. Edo, Izon and Esan can also be heard in this region, though to a much lesser degree, along with several other, less widely spoken Nigerian languages.
The Full List of Languages in Nigeria
The fact that Nigeria is home to languages that have yet to be classified, along with patchy assessment of speaker numbers makes it surprisingly hard to product a full list of the languages spoken in Nigeria.
However, I’ve compiled a list of 388 of the country’s reported 525 languages and dialects. Feel free to leave a comment with any additions to the list, as we update our articles regularly.
• Polchi Habe
The Relevance of the Ethnic Languages of Nigeria
The sheer scale of this list of languages in Nigeria gives some indication of how important language is in understanding Nigeria and its culture. The country is a vast linguistic melting pot, with many languages and Nigerian dialects that have no written form or even classification. Yet each contributes to the overall picture of language in Nigeria.
Nigerian language that is used in television and film – Hausa, Igo, Yoruba and of course Nigerian Standard English – is relevant to understanding the country’s popular culture. But it is understanding the use and history of the hundreds of less spoken languages in Nigeria that really gives an insight into the country’s history.
Each ethnic language is valuable in and of itself. It reveals details of a particular culture and way of life. With so many languages under threat of extinction, it’s vital that we do all we can to preserve each and every one. Are you up to the challenge of learning an endangered Nigerian language to help preserve it? (If you’re on the lookout for a language to learn, check out the link below for further inspiration.)
Read more: 15 Best Languages to Learn in 2020
I’ve enjoyed putting the languages of Nigeria under the spotlight today. We’ve walked through the country’s main language groups and looked at the languages in Nigeria from a regional perspective. I’ve also included a list of nearly 400 of Nigeria’s languages, as well as discussing the official Nigerian language, English.