If you think of Africa, you might picture it primarily as stretches of savanna or vast swaths of desert with scattered communities of people throughout. But Africa is a massive continent that comprises all sorts of terrains and topographies — and tongues. The populations peppered throughout the African continent are diverse and heterogeneous, so it only follows that the languages of Africa are just as plentiful and multidimensional as the people who live there.
Read on to learn more about the languages of Africa, where they’re spoken and who speaks them.
The Many, Many Languages Of Africa
The linguistic diversity of Africa is striking. Did you know that some linguists place the number of languages of Africa that are spoken as a first language at somewhere between roughly 1,000 and 2,000 (with the most liberal estimates putting that number upwards of 3,000)? This means that about one-third of the world’s languages can be found in Africa alone. At least 75 of these languages are spoken by a million people or more. Nigeria alone has around 500 languages, making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world.
There might be a few thousand languages spoken natively in Africa, but most of them fall neatly into just a few categories. Language scholars classify the languages of Africa into six different families, or phyla: the Niger-Congo languages, the Afroasiatic languages, the Nilo-Saharan languages, the Khoisan languages, the Austronesian languages, and the Indo-European languages. Other language isolates, tongues that have yet to be classified and a handful of sign languages are sprinkled throughout the continent, too.
The Niger-Congo Languages Of Africa
With between roughly 1,350 and 1,650 tongues within the language family, the Niger-Congo languages make up the largest language family in Africa — and in the world. They’re found across a wide span of the continent, mostly in the western, central, and southeastern regions. They’re further sub-divided into the Bantu and the non-Bantu languages depending mostly on their geography, with the Bantu tongues found more toward the southern part of the Niger-Congo linguistic territory.
One of the Niger-Congo languages of Africa you might recognize most is Swahili, whose different dialects are spoken by about 18 million people natively and 82 million as a second language. It was influenced heavily by Arabic due in no small part to the history of trade between Africa and people from Arab lands. It’s sometimes considered the lingua franca of the African Great Lakes region because it’s so widely used and taught in schools in places like Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya, among others.
Other Niger-Congo languages with populations of speakers in the millions include Yoruba (mostly in Nigeria), Amharic (in Ethiopia), Kirundi (in Burundi), Lingala (in the Congo), Sesotho (in Lesotho and parts of southern Africa) and Shona (in Zimbabwe). South Africa recognizes 9 Bantu languages — Xhosa, Ndebele, Zulu, Tswana, Swati, Sotho, Southern Sotho, Venda and Tsonga — as official languages in its constitution. There are far too many other Niger-Congo languages to list them all here!
The Afroasiatic Languages Of Africa
The next biggest language phylum is the Afroasiatic language group, which includes between 200 and 300 tongues. The most widely spoken of these by far (and on the continent as a whole) is Arabic, which is estimated to have more than 150 million speakers, most of which are concentrated in northern African countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Chad and Sudan, among others (the different dialects aren’t always mutually intelligible).
The Afroasiatic family includes languages like Somali, Berber, Hausa and Oromo that exist in the Horn of Africa and across parts of the central Sahara and the northern region of the continent.
The Nilo-Saharan Languages Of Africa
There are around 80 languages in the Nilo-Saharan family. These tonal languages are spread throughout parts of central, eastern and northeastern Africa, including places like Chad, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Examples of Nilo-Saharan languages include Lugbara in Uganda, Zarma in Niger and Dholuo in Kenya.
The Khoisan Languages Of Africa
The 40 to 70 languages in the Khoisan phylum include tongues that are mostly located in southern Africa — namely parts of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Angola. These tongues share certain parts of their phonologies, like their characteristic click consonants that may come to mind when people think of the languages of Africa. It’s a phoneme that has spread to languages in other families, like some of the Bantu languages. The Hadza language of Tanzania and the Naro language of Botswana are two examples of Khoisan languages.
The Austronesian Languages Of Africa
Africa’s Austronesian languages are found almost exclusively on the island of Madagascar off the continent’s southeast coast. Malagasy, a co-official language of Madagascar, is among them, the result of the migration of Southeast Asian people more than a millennium ago. It has just shy of 20 million speakers.
The Indo-European Languages Of Africa
The major non-native languages of Africa come from the Indo-European language family, which includes tongues across the world like English, German, Hindi, Greek, Russian, Polish and many more. A legacy of colonialism is largely responsible for the heavy presence of Indo-European languages in Africa. The French, Germans, Dutch, Belgians, Portuguese, English, Spanish and even the Italians at one point controlled territories throughout the continent, and vestiges of their languages remain to this day.
The most common of these colonial legacy languages is French, which has an estimated 120 million native speakers in Africa, almost twice the population of France. It’s also the fastest growing language in Africa, which has the most French speakers of anywhere in the world! They can be found in former French colonies or territories that had contact with French, including Burkina Faso, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Cameroon, Benin, Madagascar, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti, Togo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Comoros, Gabon and Niger (it’s an official language in all of these countries).
French is huge, but don’t forget that there are plenty of other Indo-European languages of Africa. Namibia, a former German colony, has a healthy population of native German speakers, and in countries like Mozambique, Cape Verde, Angola and Equatorial Guinea you’ll likely hear Portuguese. There’s even a handful of speakers of Bhojpuri, a native Indian language, in Mauritius. English is spoken natively only by about 7 million people in Africa, but there are estimated to be hundreds of millions of people who know or speak the language to some degree, due in part to its ubiquity in the spheres of government and education.
Travel all the way down the continent to South Africa, and you’ll find another unique Indo-European language with a complex history. Afrikaans is a nearly mutually intelligible offshoot of the Dutch spoken by the settlers who arrived at the Cape Colony in the mid-17th century, and it’s a language that’s very particular to South Africa (and spoken a bit in Namibia to the north). It has a long narrative tied up in the institution and legacy of apartheid in the country and is an essential part of the story of the nation’s development. Along with Afrikaans, many people speak English (the British briefly occupied South African territories, too), and these two languages along with the nine native Bantu languages mentioned above make up the 11 official languages of South Africa.