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24 Most Spoken Languages in Africa

Africans speak more than 2000 languages, with billions of people from different native tribes and ethnic groups.

The continent has vast indigenous languages, and most countries are bilingual, if not trilingual, due to their diverse native language.

Read below to know more about the twenty-four [24] most spoken languages in Africa.

1. Malagasy

Malagasy is an Austronesian Madagascar language that up to 10 million people speak. It is one of the popular languages which the people of Africa speak.

Origin

Malagasy is a westernmost Malayo-Polynesian language brought to Madagascar around the 5th century A.D. by the Austronesian peoples from the Sunda Islands. 

Where is spoken 

The people of Madagascar mostly speak this language, and it is slightly related to the Ma’anyan language. 

Number of speakers

Malagasy, a national language, is spoken by twenty-five million people, minimally, in Madagascar and Comoros.

Dialect 

It has two significant dialects that include eastern and western Malagasy.

2. Arabic 

Arabic is the Semitic language of Arab people, spoken by some 150 million people across the northern region of Africa and the Middle East.

Origin

The Arabic language spread through all shores of North Africa due to the expansion of the Muslim Caliphate.

North Africa turned into Arab speaking country in the 11th century after the migration of Arabs. 

The North Africans, Middle East Africans, and the Arabs are the people speaking the Arabic language.

Number of speakers

It has about 350 million native speakers with a language family comprising North Arabian Arabic, Central Semitic, etc.

Countries that speak Arab

Countries in Africa like Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Chad, Sudan, Mauritania, etc., speak Arabic as a primary language.

3. Swahili

Swahili, otherwise Kiswahili, the native name, is a native language of the Swahili people, also called a Bantu language.

Origin

Swahili is a language that emanates from the East Africa coast. It became the most spoken language in Africa due to intermarriage between Bantu-speaking communities and the East African coast.

Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi discovered the language in the 10th century. 

The language developed after the migration of Bantu-speaking people to the East coast for trading thus became a mix of Bantu and Arabic.

Swahili, the native mother tongue of the Swahili people, is one of the most spoken dialects in Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, Kenya, Burundi, and Tanzania. 

As one of the working languages in the African Union, the Swahili language got validation as an optional subject of study in 2018 in South Africa.

By 2020 Botswana followed suit with Namibia planning to do the same in no distance time.

Countries that speak Swahili

East and southern Africa, the African Great Lakes region, including Congo, Malawi, Somalia, Zambia, and Mozambique, speak Swahili as their lingua Franca. 

Number of speakers 

More than 16 million people speak Swahili as a native language, and 82 million persons speak it as a second language.

4. Zulu

After Swahili, Zulu is another widely spoken Bantu language and the highest spoken home language, mainly in the Zululand area of Natal province South Africa. 

The origin of the Zulu language

Shaka Zulu formed the Zulu nation in the 14th century, with the Zulu language adopting many of the sounds that constitute the modern language from the San and the Khoi. 

The Norwegian missionary Hans Schreuder published the first grammar book of the Zulu language in 1850. The first written documentary surfaced in 1883. By 1901, John Dube established Ohlange Institute as the first native institute in South Africa. 

The existence of the Zulu language in South Africa dates as far back as the 14th century A.D. and is part of the Niger-Congo language family.

Countries that speak it 

It is the official language of the Zulu people, with native speakers of 12 million, and about 50% of its population understand it well. 

The Zulu language emerged in 1994 as one of the official languages in South Africa, and till the arrival of the missionaries, Zulu was not a written language.

Number of speakers

The Zulu language is a Bantu language spoken by up to nine million people, especially in South Africa.

5. Berber

Berber, otherwise Amazigh languages, is the primary language of the Berbers, the inhabitants of North Africa.

Origin

Berberis is a language that belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family, spoken mainly in Morocco and Algeria. 

Moroccan education minister, Habib Al Malki, announced that educationists would teach the three dialects (Tachlhit, Tamazight, and Tarifit) of Berber language in different schools.  

The language has two dialects, northern Berber and Tuareg. Constitutionally, Berber turned to Algeria’s national language in 2001, while in 2011, it became Morocco’s official language.

Countries that speak Berber

The Berber language countries include Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Tunisia, Mali, and Egypt.

Number of speakers

The term “Berber” originated from the Greek word Barbaros and about 14 million people speak the language. 

Speakers of this language have lived, at minimum, 3000 BC in North Africa, and the traditional genealogists acclaimed that Berbers are Arabs that emigrated from Yemen. 

6. Somali

Another Afroasiatic language in Africa is Somali, the official mother tongue of Somaliland, Ethiopia, and Somalia, and it is also the national language of northeast Kenya and Djibouti.

Origin

Somali is a De facto official language chiefly spoken in Somalia, belonging to the Cushitic language family. 

The beginning of Somali speaking, according to speculations, started from southern Ethiopia in 1000 BC.

African countries that speak Somali

The Horn of Africa regions like Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Uganda, and Djibouti speak the Somali language. 

The Somali language is challenging to learn due to its complex sounds of Arabic, tones of Mandarin, and irregular plurals.

Speakers

Speakers of Somali are roughly 21.8 million, and it also serves as a chosen language by a small ethnic minority group. 

Osman Yusuf Kenadid of the Majeerteen Darod clan, Puntland state, northern Somalia, created the language between 1920 and 1922.

7. Setswana

Setswana is a national language with minor differences in dialects, and it’s among the official languages in South Africa and a national language for Botswana people.

It belongs to the Niger-Congo language family, is found in three provinces in South Africa, and is well used by 4.5 million people in Southern Africa.

Speakers

Setswana language, alternatively known as Tswana, is spoken by one million people and is related to northern Sotho and Southern Sotho.

Setswana speaking countries in Africa

The language was first described by Sol D. T. Plaatje while, the countries that speak it include Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. From the records, Setswana is one of the first written Sotho languages.

8. Kinyarwanda

Kinyarwanda is an official Bantu language in African, mainly spoken in Rwanda alone by approximately 12 million persons. 

The whole populace of Rwanda speaks Kinyarwanda as a national language which is now an official language, and it is applicable in schools, media, and administrations.

Countries that speak it

Over 12 million people in Rwanda speak the language, with lesser speakers in Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and DR Congo. 

Kinyarwanda, perhaps a complex language to learn, has a linguistic affiliation with Kirundi, the official language of Burundi.

Speakers

Throughout Eastern Africa, Kinyarwanda serves as a lingua franca and is spoken by almost 10 million people.

Dialects

The language encompasses dialects like Bufumbwa, Hutu, Rutwa, Mulenge, Igikiga, Bwisha, and Rufumbira. The language family of Kinyarwanda is Niger Congo. 

9. Tigrinya

Tigrinya belongs to the Semitic language family, and it is widely spoken in Eritrea together with Ethiopia. 

The origin of Tigrinya dates back to the 13th century, where local customary laws wrote publications in the Tigrinya language. 

The first publication and literary work written in the Tigrinya language was by scholar Feseha Giyorgis in 1895.

Speaker

Nearly 7 million people worldwide speak Tigrinya, and it’s a working language in Eritrea. 

It is mutually intelligible and slightly equal to phonetics with Amharic.

10. Chewa

Alternatively known as Chichewa, Chewa is a national language in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. 

It is a Bantu language with more than 15 million speakers in southern Africa.

Origin of the language

As the primary language in Malawi, Chewa came from the Bantu ethnic group native to southern and central Africa. 

Initially, it was called Chinyanja but was changed officially to Chichewa in 1968 by Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the then-president.

 From 1968 to 1994, Chewa has been the only national language and is currently one of the many languages used in print and broadcast media.

11. Lingala

Lingala is a language whose term evolved from Bobangi, and over 10 million people speak it. 

The language is the most commonly used in the northern part of Congo, northwestern part of Congo, Brazzaville, Kinshasa, and to a lesser extent in Angola, South Sudan. 

Origin and usage

Lingala, otherwise the language of the riverine, developed in the 19th century from the Bobangi.

The missionaries of those days mainly used the language to proselytize people. 

Lingala is a borrowed language from French, Portuguese, Swahili, English, and Kikongo. Lingala began from Bobangi, a historically used language as a trade language across the Congo River. 

In 1903, the language was commonly used as Bangala, but catholic missionaries attempted to standardize and expand its vocabulary, thus the emergence of the name, Lingala

Lingala is one of the national languages of instruction, administration, business, and international communications.

12. Bambara

Bambara, also called Bamana, is a national language of Mali spoken by about 15 million people and over 10 million speakers as second language users. 

It is relatively used as a trade language in Mali and is a common native tongue for central and southern Mali. 

The language is part of the Mande branch of the Congo language family with dialects like Saro, Kaarta, Bananba, Segu, Keleyadugu, Jitumu, and many more. 

In 2013, Voice of America Bambara language broadcast kicked start to sustain French-to-Africa language service.

13. Ibibio

Ibibio is an Atlantic –Congo language family with about 1.5 to 2 million speakers in southern Nigeria. 

Origin

The Ibibio language is primarily the native tongue of Cross River State and Akwa Ibom State people of Nigeria, West Africa, and is mainly valuable for business and education. 

According to history, the language came into existence in 7000 B.C. and is the native language of Akwa Ibom state, while few parts of Abia state and Cross River speak it. 

During the pre-colonial period, people wrote it similar to Igbo, Efik, Anaang, and Ejagham. 

Usage

Ibibio has different tones like high, rising, mid, falling, and low, meaning one word can have numerous meanings depending on its sound. 

Samuel Bill founded Ibibio, and in the 19th century, he introduced it to Christianity and later spread it in the middle belt of Nigeria through the missionaries.

14. Amharic

Amharic is the most spoken language in Ethiopia, and it’s an Afro Asiatic language of the Southwest Semitic group. 

It has more than 20 million speakers, and it originated from the Middle East together with Hebrew, Tigrinya, etc. 

Origin and Usage

The Amharic language has been a written language for almost 500 years with relatively large written literature. 

Though it became a lingua franca in the 9th century, it turned to the means of the state language in the 14th century. 

Amharic, a national language in Ethiopia, is also a native vernacular in Egypt, Eritrea, and other countries outside Africa. 

It is a working language in Ethiopia with 31,800,000 mother-tongue speakers and second-language speakers of 25,100,000. 

Amharic has an official writing pattern called Fidal or Abugida, which entails writing from the left to right-hand side. 

It originated due to the pidginization process to enable communication amongst people who speak different languages.

15. Oromo

Countries like Kenya, Somalia, Egypt, and Ethiopia speak Oromo as their primary language, and over 30 million speakers are fluent in the Oromo language. 

The people were forbidden to write the language between the years 1974 and 1991. 

Origin and usage

Sheikh Bakri Sapalo created the Oromo language through the Sapalo script from 1895 to 1980. 

According to another citation, Abbaa Gregory created and versed the Oromo language between 1652 and 1658.

It is the official language of Ethiopia which all the country’s federal systems, including Dire Dawa region, Harari, and Oromia, use for media, journalism, and other purposes. 

16. Yoruba

Yoruba is the most West African spoken language with over 20 million speakers in Nigeria, Benin Republic, Sierra Leone, and Togo. 

Yoruba dialects

The Yoruba language has 15 dialects that comprise Ekiti, Ijebu, Oworo, Ijesha, Akoko, etc. 

Origin

The Yoruba language originated in the 1850s after the publication of Yoruba grammar and bible translation by bishop Ajayi Crowther. 

It is the official language in southwestern Nigeria, belonging to the family of Niger-Congo languages. Additionally, the national policy on Education has considered the teaching of Yoruba in schools.

17. Shona

Shona is a spoken language in Zimbabwe, followed by Mozambique with more than 10 million speakers. 

Shona dialects

The language has more than three separate Shona dialects that including Karanga, Zezuru, and Korekore. 

Shona uses a low version of the language casually, like at home, while the higher version applies in praying. 

Origin of the language

It is Bantu language which the written form dates as far back as 1830 when the visiting missionaries put the oral form into writing. 

Both Shona and Swahili have a vast number of lookalike vocabularies because both are Bantu languages.

18. Hausa

Hausa is one of the progressive languages in Africa and its continents, with about 40 million speakers. It has two major dialects with vast native tongues, homogenous to different places in Africa that speak it.

Hausa speaking countries in Africa

The language is a common mother tongue in Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Germany, Ghana, Togo, Sudan, Niger, Burkina Faso, CAR, Eritrea, and many other North African countries. 

It is the only Nigerian language with foreign station broadcast, and it includes the BBC, Voice of Russia, and Radio France International. 

Origin of Hausa language

The sons and grandsons of Bayajidda discovered the Hausa language, and it ranks 41 in the top 100 languages by population. 

Countries that speak the language

It belongs to the Chadic language family, and it serves as a trade language in West African cities, parts of Sudan, Chad, and equatorial Africa. 

The tonal Hausa language is somewhat related to Hebrew, Arabic, Berber, Somali, and Amharic.

19. Portuguese

The Portuguese language emerged from Latin in the western Iberian Peninsula, and it is generally the endpoint of the organic evolution of vulgar Latin. 

Portuguese speaking countries

It is the authorized language of six African states, essentially known as Lusophone Africa. 

The African countries include Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and Sao Tome e Principe. 

The Portuguese language is a native language for over 14 million people, while 30 million people use it as a second language. 

Portuguese language became a lingua franca in Africa in the 16th century and served as an intermediary between local officials and the Europeans.

20. French

French, also called French français, is a Romance language of the Indo-European family and francophone, from the Roman Empire’s Vulgar Latin.

Through colonialism, the Frech language spread to many African countries that speak it today, which are more than 120 million in number.

French-speaking countries in Africa

Countries like Senegal, Mauritius, Cote d Ivoire, Gabon, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Sao Tome e Principle speak the Frech language. 

Following the rate at which the majority is interested in the French language, it will have up to 700 million speakers worldwide by 2050. 

The French language came from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire and is a national language in Chad. 

Some countries like Congo, Madagascar, Cameroon, and Ivory Coast speak French as an official language.

21. English

The English language emerged as an Anglo-Frisian dialect group and has 6.5 million speakers, with some million-second language speakers.

The Anglo-Saxon migrants first brought it to Britain, and it later expanded to many African countries due to the effects of colonialism.

Origin

The introduction of the English language kicked off with the arrival of three Germanic tribes [Angles, the Saxons, and Jutes]. 

The evolution of oral English started from the mid 5th to 7th centuries A.D, with the back and forth of the three Germanic tribes who spoke the same Germanic tongue but different dialects. 

The people of England pioneered the speaking of the English language. By the end of the 18th century, English was brought to South Africa and eventually got to Zimbabwe, Zambia in the 19th century. 

English speaking countries in Africa

Over 23 African countries speak English, including Nigeria, Liberia, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, etc. 

The language has no traditional written form. However, its proficiency varies, and African English is known as Ebonics, formerly Black English Vernacular [BEV].

22. Igbo

Igbo language, otherwise spelled as ‘Ibo’ by some people, is the native language and dialect of Igbo people of the eastern parts of Nigeria. 

Origin

The Igbo language is a Niger-Congo language that came to light around the 9th century A.D. near the Niger and Benue rivers. 

It later spread to the eastern part of Nigeria, then to the west, becoming their official mother tongue.

However, there is an argument that Igbo started from Nri in Anaocha Local Government and Aguleri in Anambra East local government area.

Igbo language speakers in Africa

Igbo is a well-known African language that more than 20 million persons speak with over 20 individual dialects, including Owerri, Eche, central Igbo, etc. The language is at least 100,000 years old.

Countries that speak Igbo

Aside from a wide area of southeastern Nigeria, other Igbo countries include Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Haiti, and Tobago.  

Dialects

The Igbo language has more than 20 spoken dialects, and as a result, each dialect has a different way of pronouncing and spelling the same word.  

Importance of the Igbo language in the African educational system

From Igbo, the educationists generically developed a standard literary language, ‘Igbo izugbe,’ implying ‘general Igbo.’

In general, Igbo language adoption happened around 1972 and became an essential subject in the educational system, mainly in eastern Nigeria. It is also a necessary language for journalism, media broadcasting, publication, etc.

About Igbo first book

The first book in Igbo titled ‘Isoama –Ibo’ is a publication of a seasoned writer, A. Crowther, in 1857 with the assistance of Jonas. 

23. Afrikaans

Afrikaans, also known as ‘Cape Dutch,’ is a West Germanic language spoken mainly in South Africa.

Origin 

The development of Afrikaans as a language started in 17th-century Dutch, in other words, Netherlandicis one of the official languages of South Africa under the 1996 constitution. 

In 1994, the Afrikaans language was permitted in schools and used in the dutch reformed church in 1919. 

During the 20th century, usual Afrikaans literature came into existence, and by 1933, the publication of the bible translation to Afrikaans surfaced. 

The language has some obtained words from other languages like German and Khoisan languages.

Uniquness of Afrikaans

The rare quality of Afrikaans is that it is the South African language with Dutch roots, thereby allowing speakers to take pride in it. 

The language, which has little or no frustrating difference from English, had a monument in the Western Cape Province, South Africa.

African countries that speak Afrikaans 

Afrikaans-speaking countries comprise South Africans that use it as the official language, Namibia, and other countries with lesser value like Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.  

Number of speakers

The number of persons who speak Afrikaans either as a native or second language is approximately 46 million.

Development of Afrikaans 

Africans, together with the Asian workers, Khoikhoi women, cape-colored children of Europeans, and slaves, pioneered the development of the language Afrikaans.  

The majority of the slaves were people from East Africa, Madagascar, West Africa, India, and Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia.

24. Sotho

The Sotho language, alternatively called Sesotho, is a Bantu language spoken primarily in Lesotho by the Basothos. 

Origin and usage

The language originated from the Bantu Nguni era, and its written form takes its basis on the dialect of Tlokwa. 

Sotho, an agglutinative language, uses many affixes, derivational and inflexional rules to establish complete words. 

Eugene Casalis, a French missionary that arrived in Lesotho, lowered the Sotho language to writing in 1833 

When Sotho came to South Africa: This language arrived in South Africa in AD 270 after the over flooding of the Nile River.

Dialects of Sotho

It has two dialects, namely southern Sotho and northern Sotho though both are two separate languages.

Native speakers

Sotho is a De facto national language spoken by 7.9 million native speakers in South Africa.

Countries Sotho is their mother tongue: Since 1996, Sotho has been one of the official languages in South Africa and a national language of Lesotho.

Apart from the twenty-four (24) languages in this article, research also shows that Africans speak over 2,000 different languages, including Portuguese, and many more.

Conclusion

Of a truth, Africa has a vast language that varies from country, with different specific origins.

In this article post, one can learn about the native and official language and their essential details at a glance.

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