What are the African languages?

The continent has 2.158 thousand languages and is the second with the most indigenous languages in the world.
Rodrigo Demetrio
2 min
Table of Contents

When you think about Africa, can you see beyond the history of colonization, war, poverty, and wildlife? What about you include in this repertory technology, a variety of languages and ethnicity, rich culture, and high potential development?According to the last research of Ethnologue, this massive continent has 2.158 thousand active languages. It is the second continent with the most indigenous languages (the first is Asia). Also, Nigeria and Cameroon are in the top 10 countries with the most languages: 527 and 277, respectively.

Language families

The biggest spoken languages in Africa are derived from four big families: Niger-Congo and Afro-Asiatic are the biggest ones, followed by Nilo-Saharian and Khoisan. Despite having a common root, the ramifications of each family make the languages very different.It’s worth remembering that due to the process of colonization of the continent by European countries, the territory was divided and the language of the colonizers was imposed. Thus, many African countries adopt Indo-European languages (such as Portuguese, English, and French) in the official language, for government, education, and business use.On the African island of Madagascar, Malagasy is one of the two official idioms (besides French). It’s a language of Austronesian origin, generally spoken throughout the island. These families’ languages are distributed as we see below on the map:

African Languages

© 2012, Encyclopedia BritannicaAs it’s impossible to describe all these, we highlight some of these idioms with a considerable number of speakers.

Níger-Congo languages

Many subdivisions are within the Niger-Congo language family, the largest in Africa. One of these divisions is the Bantu languages, such as Swahili (82.5 million speakers in the world), Zulu (27.8M), and Xhosa (19,2M). These last two are spoken especially in South Africa, a country that has 11 official languages. Swahili, for example, is one of the easier African languages to learn by native English speakers because they are not tonal languages, with variations in the pitch of the syllable sound. You probably know one expression of this language: “Hakuna Matata” (no worries). One interesting thing is that Swahili is the African language with the highest ratio of the most spoken second language. That’s why is listed as a national or official language in several African countries such as Kenya, Burundi, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Northern parts of Zambia. We can also mention the Igbo language (30.8M of speakers, the majority in Nigeria but a small percentage also in Ghana), the Yoruba (45.6M spread mainly in Nigeria, but also in Niger, Togo, Ghana, and Sierra Leone) and Fulani, called “Fulfulde” by native speakers, Fula, Pular and by many other names, with 32,5M speakers spread in West and Central Africa, from Senegal across to Sudan, with various dialects.All of these more than a thousand Niger-Congo languages are considered to be distinct languages and not simply dialects. It’s important to be clear that Language and Dialects are two different concepts.

© 2012, Encyclopedia Britannica

Afro-Asiatic languages

From the Afro-Asiatic big group, also called Afrasian languages, we must highlight Arabic. Standard Arabic is the 6ª language most spoken worldwide, with 274 million speakers. Within this idiom, there are many dialects that you must consider in Arabic translation services. Here at Bureau Works, we have a team that supports translation in dialects such as Magherebi, Egyptic, Mesopotamian, Levantine, and Peninsular.In addition to Arabic, Afro-Asiatic languages most spoken on the African continent are Berber (56M), Hausa (34M), Oromo (26M), and Somali, with 21M speakers just in Africa, according to World Atlas. It is followed by Amharic - from the same Arabic subgroup of Semitic languages - with more than 21M speakers in the continent. Oromo is the native language of the indigenous African people of the same name and the speakers are present in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and parts of Egypt. It’s the most popular language and the oldest in Ethiopia. This country also adopted Amharic and Somali as official languages. From the same subgroup of the Cushitic family, Somali is the official language of Somalia, along with Arabic. You can find speakers spread across Djibouti, Eritrea, and Kenya.

African Languages

© 2012, Encyclopedia Britannica

Looking to the future

As you must know, language is fluid and constantly evolving. This change is followed by the region's development. Currently, the fastest-growing cities in the world are located mainly in Africa and this can represent, in an optimistic scenario, an opportunity for innovation not only for the region but also for other continents. Therefore, it’s important the promotion of the local languages through language policies in order to keep those languages and cultures alive.

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Rodrigo Demetrio
Steering the marketing ship at Bureau Works with 17+ years of MarTech under my belt, I transform mere ideas into tangible realities. Passionate about languages and their power to build bridges, let's build a new one?
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