African Languages

What is Spoken Where?

Men laughing, Chefchauen, Morocco, North Africa
••• David Clapp/The Image Bank/Getty Images

There are literally thousands of indigenous languages spoken in Africa and many more dialects. Every African country you visit will no doubt be home to more than a dozen (if not several hundred) languages, even the smaller countries. But because of the sheer amount of linguistic diversity, every African country has an official language (or 11 in the case of South Africa) which acts as the lingua franca for (at least) a reasonably sized region.

Since almost every African country was at one time a colony, speaking English, Portuguese, or French will also help you communicate. Many Africans will speak Creole or pidgin versions of these European languages and they may not be so easy to understand when you first hear them.

Arabic is very handy in Northern Africa and Swahili will help you get by in much of East Africa.

Learning a few phrases in a local language will do much to endear you to the local population and help you get around. If you're spending more than a few weeks in a country it is definitely worth buying a phrasebook.

What African Language is Spoken Where?

Below you'll find a list of the major languages spoken in the more common African travel destinations. As a general rule, the more rural a place is, the less likely you are to get by with just English, Portuguese or French.

Angola
Official Language: Portuguese
Other languages spoken in Angola are mostly Bantu languages which include Umbundu, Nyemba and Chokwe.

Benin
Official Language: French
Other languages spoken in Benin include English (in tourist areas), Fon and Yoruba (south), Beriba and Dendi (north).

Botswana
Official Language: English
The principal language spoken in Botswana is Setswana (or Tswana) which is spoken by 90 of the population.

Cameroon
Official Languages: English and French
French is more widely spoken than English but a combination of the two is becoming more widespread -- frananglais.

Over 200 hundred languages are spoken in Cameroon from the Bantu and Sudanic groups.

Egypt
Official Language: Arabic
Modern Standard Arabic is widely understood in Egypt and is used by the media and Government. But most Egyptians on the streets of Cairo and Luxor speak a colloquial Arabic that is unique to Egypt. English is spoken by many people in the major tourist areas and some French as well.

Ethiopia
Official Language: Amharic
Other important languages in Ethiopia include Oromo, Somali and Tigrinya. English is taught in schools and many people will know a few words.

Gabon
Official Language: French
Other important languages in Gabon include Fang, Mbere, Punu and Sira.

The Gambia
Official Language: English
Other important lanugages in The Gambia include Wolof, Mandinka and Pulaar.

Ghana
Official Language: English
Other important languages (out of 79) spoken in Ghana include Twi, Ga, Ewe, Dagari and Dagbani.

Kenya
Official Languages: English and (Ki)Swahili
Other important languages include Luo, Kikuyu, Luyia and Kamba. Young urbanites often speak Sheng which is a based on Swahili but uses words from many other languages.

Libya
Official Language: Arabic
If you're traveling to Libya you should pack an Arabic phrase book since little else is spoken, especially outside the main cities.

Madagascar
Official Language: Malagasy and French
Malagasy is spoken by everyone in Madagascar and many people also speak French especially in the business and government sectors.

Malawi
Official Language: English
Chichewa is probably spoken more widely by most of the population than English in Malawi, but you can get by without it for the most part. Yao and Tumbuka are commonly spoken around the lakeshore.

Mali
Official Language: French
Bambara is the most commonly spoken language in Mali, other languages include Tamashek, Songhai and Fulfulde.

Morocco
Official Language: Arabic
As in Egypt, Modern Standard Arabic is widely understood but Moroccans on the streets of Casablanca and Marrakech speak a colloquial Arabic called Darija that is unique to Morocco and influenced by the Berber languages also commonly spoken throughout the country.

French is useful as many educated people will speak it and it may help you get from place to place. English is not commonly spoken or understood in Morocco.

Mozambique
Official Language: Portuguese
Other important languages (out of the 43 mostly Bantu languages) include Lomwe, Makhuwa, Ndau and Tsonga.

What African Language is Spoken Where? ... continued for countries N - Z

What African Language is Spoken Where? ... Continued (N - Z)

Below you'll find a list of the major languages spoken in the more common African travel destinations. As a general rule, the more rural a place is, the less likely you are to get by with just English, Portuguese or French.

See Page 1 of this article for more African language information for countries A - M

Namibia
Official Language: English
While the official language is English, Afrikaans is actually much more widely spoken by Namibians as a second language, even in rural areas.

Other important languages in Namibia include Herero, Ovambo, German, Portuguese (in the north) and Nama.

Nigeria
Official Language: English
Other important languages in Nigeria include Hausa (widely spoken throughout northern Nigeria), Yoruba, Ibo, Edo, Idoma, Fulfulde and Efik. Many people, particularly in the south and urban areas, speak a creole or pidgin English similar to Krio in Sierra Leone and Pidgin in Cameroon.

Rwanda
Official Languages: French, English and Kinyarwanda
Rwandans nearly all speak Kinyarwanda as their mother tongue, but Englih and French is also widely understood throughout the country.

Senegal
Official Language: French
The most widely spoken language in Senegal is Wolof. Other important languages include Fula, Soninke, Mandinka, and Bambara.

South Africa
Official Languages: Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Venda, Swati, Sesotho, Sepedi, Tsonga and Tswana.
Yes, South Africa actually has 11 official languages.

Most people speak their tribal mother tongue as well as some English and Afrikaans. Unofficial languages include San and Nama (Bushmen languages) and Northern Ndebele. Several creole or pidgin languages are also common including Fanagalo (used in the mines) and Tsotsi taal or Isicamtho (used in the townships).

Tanzania
Official Languages: (Ki)Swahili and English
Swahili is more widely spoken outside of the urban areas than English, so it's useful to pick up a few phrases when traveling in Tanzania. Other major languages spoken in Tanzania include Sukuma, Gogo, Haya, Kwere, Makonde, Mambwe, and Nyamwezi.

Togo
Official Language: French
Other important languages (out of 39) in Togo include Kabye, and Mina. Some English is spoken in the tourist areas.

Tunisia
Official Language: Arabic
French is widely spoken and understood especially in the tourist areas. The Arabic spoken in the streets of Tunisia is similar to that spoken in Morocco, commonly known as Darija.

Uganda
Official Language: English
Most Ugandans speak English as well as an indigenous language, the most common ones are Luganda and (Ki)Swahili. Soga, Chiga and Runyankore are also important languages in Uganda, each have over a million native speakers.

Zambia
Official Language: English
English is widely spoken throughout Zambia, other important languages include Tonga, Bemba, Nyanja (similar to Chichewa) and Lozi.

Zimbabwe
Official Language: English
English is widely spoken throughout Zimbabwe but most Zimbabweans' first language is either Shona or Ndebele.

What African Language is Spoken Where? ... continued for countries A - M

Sources
Ethnologue.com
Wikipedia
Lonely Planet Guide Books