A Guide to African Languages Listed by Country

A Guide to African Languages Listed by Country
Bartosz Hadyniak/ Getty Images

Even for a continent with 54 very different countries, Africa has a lot of languages. It is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 languages are spoken here, many with their own set of varying dialects. To make things even more confusing, in many countries the official language is not the same as the lingua franca – that is, the language spoken by the majority of its citizens. 

If you're planning a trip to Africa, it's a good idea to research both the official language and the lingua franca of the country or region you're traveling to. That way, you can attempt to learn a few keywords or phrases before you go. This can be difficult – especially when a language isn't written phonetically (like Afrikaans), or includes click consonants (like Xhosa) – but making an effort will be greatly appreciated by the people you meet on your travels. 

If you're traveling to an ex-colony (like Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea or Senegal), you'll find that European languages can also come in handy. However, be prepared for the Portuguese, Spanish or French that you hear there to sound quite different than it would in Europe. In this article, we look at the official and most widely spoken languages in every African country, from Algeria to Zimbabwe. 

Algeria

Official Languages: Modern Standard Arabic and Tamazight (Berber)

The most widely spoken languages in Algeria are Algerian Arabic and Berber. 

Angola

Official Language: Portuguese

Portuguese is spoken as a first or second language by just over 70% of the population. There are approximately 38 indigenous languages in Angola, including Umbundu, Kikongo, and Chokwe. 

Benin

Official Language: French

There are 55 languages in Benin, the most popular of which are Fon and Yoruba (in the south) and Beriba and Dendi (in the north). French is spoken by only 35% of the population. 

Botswana

Official Language: English

Although English is the primary written language in Botswana, the vast majority of the population speak Setswana as their mother tongue. 

Burkina Faso

Official Language: French

In addition to French, there are more than 60 indigenous languages in Burkina Faso of which Mossi is the most widely spoken.

Burundi

Official Languages: Kurundi, French and English

Of its three official languages, Kurundi is the one spoken by the majority of Burundi's population.

Cameroon

Official Languages: English and French

There are almost 250 languages in Cameroon. Of the two official languages, French is by far the most widely spoken, while other important regional tongues include Fang and Cameroonian Pidgin English.

Cape Verde

Official Language: Portuguese

The mother tongue of almost all Cape Verdeans is Portuguese-based Cape Verde Creole.

Central African Republic

Official Languages: French and Sangho

Sangho is the lingua franca in the Central African Republic although over 70 different languages are spoken across the nation.

Chad

Official Languages: French and Modern Standard Arabic

Chad's lingua franca is a vernacular version of Arabic known as Chadian Arabic.

Comoros

Official Languages: Comorian, French and Arabic

Over 96% of the country's citizens speak Comorian, a language that has many similarities to Swahili.

Cote d'Ivoire

Official Language: French

French is the official language and the lingua franca in Cote d'Ivoire, although approximately 78 indigenous languages are also spoken. 

Democratic Republic of Congo

Official Language: French

Four indigenous languages are recognized as national languages in the DRC: Kituba, Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba.

Djibouti

Official Languages: Arabic and French

The majority of Djiboutians speak either Somali or Afar as their first language.

Egypt

Official Language: Modern Standard Arabic

The lingua franca of Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, which is spoken by most of the population. English and French are also common in urban areas. 

Equatorial Guinea

Official Languages: Spanish, French and Portuguese

Equatorial Guinea is the only African country with Spanish as an official language. Over 67% of citizens can speak it.

Eritrea

Official Language: N/A

Eritrea does not have an official language. The most widely spoken language is Tigrinya.

eSwatini

Official Languages: Swazi and English

Swazi is spoken by approximately 95% of people in eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland.

Ethiopia

Official Language: Amharic

Other important languages in Ethiopia include Oromo, Somali and Tigrinya. English is the most popular foreign language taught in schools. 

Gabon

Official Language: French

More than 80% of people in Gabon can speak French, but most use one of 40 indigenous languages as their mother tongue. Of these, the most important are Fang, Mbere, and Sira. 

Gambia

Official Language: English

Mandingo, Fula and Wolof are the three most popular languages in The Gambia.

Ghana

Official Language: English

There are around 80 different languages in Ghana. English is the lingua franca, but the government also sponsors eight African languages, including Twi, Ewé, and Dagbani. 

Guinea

Official Language: French

There are over 40 native languages spoken in Guinea of which six have been recognized as national languages: Fula, Maninka, Susu, Kissi, Kpelle and Toma.

Guinea-Bissau

Official Language: Portuguese

Around 91% of the population can speak Portuguese. Around 44% speak Guinea-Bissau Creole as well.

Kenya

Official Languages: Swahili and English

Both of the official languages serve as a lingua franca in Kenya, but of the two, Swahili is the most widely spoken. 

Lesotho

Official Languages: Sesotho and English

More than 90% of Lesotho's residents use Sesotho as a first language, although bilingualism is encouraged. 

Liberia

Official Language: English

There are more than 30 native languages spoken in Liberia, but none of them are spoken by a distinct majority of the population.

Libya

Official Language: Modern Standard Arabic

Arabic is spoken by most Libyans, whether they speak Libyan, Egyptian or Tunisian Arabic.

Madagascar

Official Languages: Malagasy and French

Malagasy is spoken throughout Madagascar, although many people also speak French as a second language. 

Malawi

Official Language: English

There are 16 languages in Malawi, of which Chichewa is the most widely spoken. 

Mali

Official Language: French

13 native languages are given legal status in Mali, of which Bambara is the most widely spoken.

Mauritania

Official Language: Arabic

Spoken Arabic in Mauritania is very different from the Modern Standard Arabic used for official purposes and is known as Hassaniya.

Mauritius

Official Languages: French and English

The vast majority of Mauritians speak Mauritian Creole, a language that is based predominantly on French but also borrows words from English, African and Southeast Asian languages. 

Morocco

Official Languages: Modern Standard Arabic and Amazigh (Berber)

The most widely spoken language in Morocco is Moroccan Arabic, although French serves as a second language for many of the country's educated citizens. 

Mozambique

Official Language: Portuguese

There are 43 languages spoken in Mozambique. The most widely spoken is Portuguese, followed by African languages like Makhuwa, Swahili and Shangaan. 

Namibia

Official Language: English

Despite its status as the official language of Namibia, less than 1% of Namibians speak English as their mother tongue. The most widely spoken language is Oshiwambo, followed by Khoekhoe, Afrikaans and Herero. 

Niger

Official Language: French

There are 10 additional national languages in Niger, of which Hausa is the most widely spoken.

Nigeria

Official Language: English

Nigeria is home to more than 520 languages. The most widely spoken include English, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. 

Republic of Congo

Official Language: French

The most widely spoken native languages are Lingala and Kituba.

Rwanda

Official Languages: Kinyarwanda, French, English and Swahili

Kinyarwanda is the mother tongue of most Rwandans, although English and French are also widely understood throughout the country.

São Tomé and Príncipe

Official Language: Portuguese

Portuguese is spoken by virtually all of the population although Portuguese-based creole languages also exist.

Senegal

Official Language: French

Senegal has 36 languages, of which the most widely spoken is Wolof. 

Seychelles

Official Languages: Seychellois Creole, French and English

Almost 90% of the population speaks Seychellois Creole.

Sierra Leone

Official Language: English

Krio, an English-based creole language, is spoken as the lingua franca across the country.

Somalia

Official Languages: Somali and Arabic

Somali is the mother tongue of Somalia's largest ethnic group and is therefore the country's most spoken language.

South Africa

Official Languages: Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Venda, Swati, Sotho, Northern Sotho, Tsonga and Tswana

Many South Africans are bilingual and can speak at least two of the country's 11 official languages. Zulu and Xhosa are the most common mother tongues, although English is understood by most people. 

South Sudan

Official Language: English

There are over 60 indigenous languages in South Sudan. The most popular include Dinka, Nuer, Bari and Zande.

Sudan

Official Languages: Arabic and English

Sudanese Arabic is the most widely spoken language in Sudan.

Tanzania

Official Languages: Swahili and English

Both Swahili and English are lingua francas in Tanzania, although more people can speak Swahili than English. 

Togo

Official Language: French

Two of Togo's indigenous languages have national language status: Ewé and Kabiyé.

Tunisia

Official Language: Literary Arabic

Almost all Tunisians speak Tunisian Arabic, with French as a common second language. 

Uganda

Official Languages: English and Swahili

Swahili and English are the lingua francas in Uganda, although most people use an indigenous language as their mother tongue. The most popular include Luganda, Soga, Chiga and Runyankore. 

Zambia

Official Language: English

There are more than 70 different languages and dialects in Zambia. Seven are officially recognized, including Bemba, Nyanja, Lozi, Tonga, Kaonde, Luvale and Lunda. 

Zimbabwe

Official Languages: Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, sign language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa

Of Zimbabwe's 16 official languages, Shona, Ndebele and English are the most widely spoken. 

This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on June 5 2019. 

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