What Languages Are Spoken In Madagascar?

The world’s fourth-largest island has a lot to share with the world.
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What Languages Are Spoken In Madagascar?

If you’ve ever seen the pop-culture phenom franchise that is the 2005 DreamWorks animated film Madagascar and its many spin-offs, you’re no stranger to the not-so-small island nation’s biodiversity (and it’s much more than just ring-tailed tree mammals with exceptional choreographic and musical abilities). Did you know that among the plethora of lush and plentiful flora and fauna you’ll even find … people? The nation’s human population is about 25 million strong, and with people comes language, of course. But what are the languages spoken in Madagascar?

Keep reading to find out more about the linguistic makeup of one of the world’s hotspots of environmental and ecological diversity.

A Look At The Languages Spoken In Madagascar

According to the country’s 1958 constitution, Madagascar’s two official languages are French and Malagasy. The latter is also the name of the indigenous ethnic group that inhabits the island and makes up about 90 percent of the total population. Malagasy is a Malayo-Polynesian macrolanguage of the Austronesian language family whose name refers to the dozen varieties of language (most scholars say there are exactly 12) that can be found throughout the island. The varieties are mostly mutually intelligible with one another, but are different enough to not be considered exactly the same. The standard variety is known as Merina Malagasy, understood by the speakers of the other dialects. There are about 18 million people who speak Malagasy to some degree today. 

The French language came to the island with the tide of European colonialism that swept over so much of the African continent and other parts of the world in the era of imperialism. It’s estimated that in Madagascar — a former French colony — there are almost 5 million people who speak the language to some degree, though the numbers of native speakers is quite small, at about 120,000. 

Today, French is a de jure official language because it was reaffirmed as such in the 2007 constitution, whereas Malagasy is considered a de facto official language, along with its designation as a national language in the same document.

What About The Other Languages?

English is generally considered to be one of the world’s most universal languages, so it’s no surprise that you’ll find it as one of the main tongues spoken in Madagascar. In fact, it had a short-lived stint as an official language from that same constitution in 2007 to 2010, when voters recalled its status in a referendum. 

Other non-indigenous languages account for a pretty sizable portion of the people who aren’t speaking Malagasy, French or English. Arabic has about 20,000 speakers on the island, and there are also about 16,000 Chinese speakers. 

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David Doochin
David is a content producer for Babbel USA, where he writes for Babbel Magazine and oversees Babbel's presence on Quora. He’s a native of Nashville and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied linguistics and history. Before Babbel he worked at Quizlet and Atlas Obscura. A geek for grammar and an editorial enthusiast, he speaks Spanish (and dabbles in German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Italian). When he’s not curating his Instagram meme collection, you can find him spending too much money on food and exploring new cities around the world.
David is a content producer for Babbel USA, where he writes for Babbel Magazine and oversees Babbel's presence on Quora. He’s a native of Nashville and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied linguistics and history. Before Babbel he worked at Quizlet and Atlas Obscura. A geek for grammar and an editorial enthusiast, he speaks Spanish (and dabbles in German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Italian). When he’s not curating his Instagram meme collection, you can find him spending too much money on food and exploring new cities around the world.
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