5 of the Most Widely-spoken Languages in Africa
Africa is a veritable buffet for the language learner. In fact, it’s estimated that there may be over 3,000 languages spoken in Africa!
We’re all familiar with the major European languages—Spanish, French, German, etc.—and East Asian languages like Korean, Chinese and Japanese. Those are typically the most popular to pick.
But African languages are awesome, too. They’re invaluable for travelers, professionals in the business world and anyone with curiosity about the world, its languages and its cultures. We should really all be picking up more of these great languages!
Here’s a list of them.
Arabic is a huge language, fit for a huge continent.
Arabic is a Semitic language, and it’s spoken by 280 million native speakers worldwide. As far as Africa is concerned, Arabic is an official language in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya, Eritrea… the list goes on! It’s also widely spoken in countries where it hasn’t yet been recognized as an official language.
Arabic comes in a number of flavors—to start out, you’ll choose between Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial dialects. If you learn Modern Standard Arabic, you’ll be able to communicate with most Arabic speakers around the world. Modern Standard Arabic is the written form of the language—this is the Arabic used in news articles, online and in novels. It’s spoken in newscasts and in some TV shows.
However, this is not the form of Arabic that native speakers always learn as children. They learn various dialects of Arabic, unique to their regions. Some of these dialects are more mutually intelligible (speakers of different dialects can understand each other) than others, but learning, say, Moroccan or Egyptian Colloquial Arabic gets you deeply connected with a culture in a way that Modern Standard Arabic can’t.
So, if you get really into Arabic, you’ll want to learn Modern Standard first, and then adopt a colloquial dialect of your choice!
Second on our list is Swahili, known as Kiswahili in the language itself.
Swahili is a Bantu language widely spoken in the African Great Lakes region, which comprises of a huge swath of Central, Southern and East African. There’s also a huge number of Swahili speakers in countries adjacent to the Great Lakes region.
With Swahili under your belt, you’ll be able to visit gorgeous countries like Tanzania and Kenya, where Swahili is an official language. Swahili will also help you get around parts of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While it’s natively spoken by 15 million people, there are more than 150 million speakers total, and it’s a common second language throughout this region!
Swahili is quite appealing to many language learners due to the fact that it’s widely spoken and for its history. Kiswahili (the name of the language in Swahili) means “coastal language,” and it’s a trade language that was created to facilitate communications between a number of Southern and Eastern Africa’s wide variety of ethnic groups.
It’s also not too hard for English speakers to learn—unlike many African languages, Swahili doesn’t use tones and, unlike Arabic and Amharic, it uses the Latin alphabet. If you do know some Arabic then you have a good head start, as there are tons of Arabic loanwords in Swahili.
What’s more, I guarantee you already know a handful of Swahili words. Why? The writers of Disney’s “The Lion King” had a bit of a love affair with Swahili. Hakuna Matata? That’s Swahili for “no worries!” Simba? Swahili for “lion!”
Next up is this beautiful Chadic language spoken in Nigeria and Niger by a whopping 39 million people.
It’s also spoken by plenty of other people in West Africa, and in fact, Hausa serves as a lingua franca for Muslim populations in this region. It’s widely understood, so it’ll get you pretty far in West Africa!
Hausa is written in both the Arabic script and the Latin alphabet. However, the Latin alphabet, called Boko, tends to be the main script used these days among Hausa speakers.
Hausa is a tonal language, but don’t let that put you off. Each of the five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) can either have a high or low pitch. While these tones may be marked in learning materials that use Latin text, everyday writing does not use any diacritics.
Amharic is a rich and ancient Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia.
It’s related to Arabic and Hebrew, and with 22 million native speakers it’s the second most widely spoken Semitic language after Arabic.
Amharic is gorgeous when spoken, and it’s even more stunning when written in its unique script. It uses an alphasyllabary called fidel—basically, each “letter” represents a consonant/vowel combination, but the forms of the consonants and vowels change depending on the combinations.
Learning to write fidel might take a little longer than learning the Arabic script, but it’s still well within reach of the average learner. Try taking advantage of tools like SRS (Spaced Repetition Systems) to efficiently memorize each letter and its various combinations.
Amharic is also host to a growing body of Ethiopian literature. Poetry and novels are both popular, and learning Amharic will open the door to experiencing literature far different from that of the rest of the world. Once you have the basics down, try your hand at reading the most famous Amharic novel, “Fiqir Iske Meqabir” (translated into English as “Love Unto Crypt”) by Haddis Alemayehu.
French hardly needs an introduction, since it’s no stranger to the aspiring language learner’s eye.
However, it’s less well-known that French can get you pretty far in many African countries, especially in North, West and Central Africa, where many countries were French colonies in the past. African French is spoken by 120 million people, and it can be quite different from the French you’d be exposed to in Europe and Canada.
Even if you’re familiar with Parisian or Quebec French, African French has unique features that take some getting used to. Accent and vocabulary are heavily influenced by surrounding native African languages, and the resulting dialects are rather distinct.
Each African region is home to a variety of French accents and Creoles, and some are difficult to understand from region to region. Central African French differs a lot from West African French, and so on. African countries that make up la Francophonie each have strong traditions of African-French prose, poetry and film that are as diverse as the cultures from which they come.
Of course, there’s no dearth of basic French resources online or otherwise. You can use FluentU to go from the beginning stages right through native-level fluency, and there are even authentic videos on the site that feature different breeds of the French language.
Now that you know a little more about some major African languages, there’s no excuse to pass them up. You’ve seen how much territory they cover, and how many wonderful people you could meet by speaking them.
Many of the countries listed here have rapidly growing economies, and are increasingly present in the world stage in terms of trade and politics.