A Guide to African Languages Listed by Country

A Guide to African Languages Listed by Country
••• Samburu Tribesman Talking on the Phone, Kenya. 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.

In this way, you can attempt to learn a few key words 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 the effort will be greatly appreciated by the people that you meet on your travels. 

If you're traveling to an ex-colony (like Mozambique, Namibia or Senegal), you'll find that European languages can also come in handy - although be prepared for the Portuguese, German 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 for some of Africa's top travel destinations, arranged in alphabetical order. 

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 African 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. 

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.

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. 

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. 

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 the population 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.

 

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, Ewe and Dagbani. 

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. 

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. 

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 Language: 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. 

Nigeria

Official Language: English

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

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.

Senegal

Official Language: French

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

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 the most people. 

Tanzania

Official Languages: Swahili and English

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

Tunisia

Official Language: Literary Arabic

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

Uganda

Official Language: 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 July 19th 2017.