Jessica Macdonald lives in South Africa's Eastern Cape province and has been TripSavvy's Africa Expert since 2016. She also covers travel products and has written about everything from camping knives to climbing chalk.
Madagascar has two official languages: Malagasy and French. Both were named official languages of the newly established Malagasy Republic in the first Constitution of 1958. In 2007, the Constitution named English as an official language as well; however, this decision was reversed during a referendum held in 2010. Malagasy is by far the most widely spoken language. Nevertheless, many people involved in the tourism industry speak some English, while visitors with a good understanding of French will be at an advantage in making themselves understood.
History of the Official Languages
Several different dialects of Malagasy are spoken in Madagascar, though all of them are mutually intelligible. They can be divided geographically into two groups: the five Eastern dialects (spoken in the central plateau and much of northern Madagascar) and six Western dialects (predominantly spoken in the southern half of the island). Of all the Malagasy dialects, Merina is considered the standard and is generally understood throughout the country.
Malagasy is part of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian family of languages, and is most similar to languages spoken in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. This makes the island unique from the East African mainland, where Bantu (of African origin) languages dominate. The reason for this is that Madagascar was first settled by traders from maritime Southeast Asia who arrived in outrigger canoes between 350 B.C. and 550 A.D. The majority of these settlers were from the Sunda Islands (including areas of modern Indonesia, Borneo, Brunei, and East Timor).
The Malagasy language evolved with exposure to other settlers and traders and was particularly influenced by the Bantu migrants who began to arrive from East Africa in the 9th century. As a result, some Malagasy words are of Bantu, Swahili, Arab, English, and French origin.
The status of French as an official language of Madagascar dates back to the country’s establishment as a French protectorate (in 1883) and then as a French colony (in 1896). Madagascar continued under French rule for over 60 years, only gaining full independence again in 1960.
Where Are the Languages Spoken?
Malagasy is the lingua franca in Madagascar, and is spoken as a first language by most Malagasy people. In public schools, it is used as the language of instruction for all subjects up to grade five; and then for history and Malagasy language lessons thereafter. Outside Madagascar, Malagasy is spoken by expatriate communities; mostly on neighboring Indian Ocean islands like Mauritius, Comoros, and Réunion.