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What language do Africans speak?

Africa is a vast continent with over 50 countries and hundreds of different languages spoken across the region. There is no single universal language spoken by all Africans. The languages spoken largely depend on the region, country, and local ethnic groups.

Major Language Families in Africa

The four major language families spoken in Africa are:

  • Afro-Asiatic languages
  • Nilo-Saharan languages
  • Niger-Congo languages
  • Khoisan languages

These language families encompass hundreds of distinct languages and dialects. Here is an overview of the major African language families:

Afro-Asiatic Languages

Afro-Asiatic languages are spoken across North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of the Sahel. This family includes major languages like:

  • Arabic – The most widely spoken Afro-Asiatic language with over 300 million speakers across North Africa and the Horn of Africa.
  • Amharic – The official language of Ethiopia with over 25 million speakers.
  • Tamazight – A Berber language spoken by around 18 million people in North Africa.
  • Tigrinya – A language in Eritrea and Ethiopia with around 8 million speakers.
  • Somali – The official language of Somalia with around 16 million speakers.

Nilo-Saharan Languages

Nilo-Saharan languages are concentrated in South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and northern Tanzania. Major Nilo-Saharan languages include:

  • Dinka – A language with over 4 million speakers in South Sudan.
  • Luo – A language spoken by the Luo people of Kenya and Tanzania, with over 6 million speakers.
  • Masai – The language of the Masai people in Kenya and Tanzania used by around 1 million people.
  • Nuer – Spoken by around 1.2 million people in South Sudan.
  • Fur – Indigenous to Darfur in Sudan and used by around 2 million people.

Niger-Congo Languages

Niger-Congo languages make up the largest family in Africa with over 1,500 distinct languages. This family dominates Sub-Saharan Africa and includes major languages like:

  • Swahili – Spoken by tens of millions across East Africa from Kenya to Tanzania.
  • Yoruba – Native to Nigeria and Benin with over 40 million speakers.
  • Igbo – A major language in Nigeria with around 27 million speakers.
  • Shona – The most widely spoken Bantu language with 10 million speakers in Zimbabwe.
  • Zulu – Widely used in South Africa by over 10 million people.
  • Chichewa – A Bantu language of Malawi with 8 million speakers.

Khoisan Languages

The Khoisan languages incorporate various click consonants and are spoken by about 300,000 people in southern Africa. Major Khoisan languages include:

  • Nama – Spoken by around 200,000 Nama people in Namibia.
  • !Xóõ – Used by about 4,000 people in Botswana.
  • Taa – Also called !Xoon, a language in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa used by about 4,000 people.

The Most Widely Spoken Languages

While Africa contains over 1,500 different languages, there are a handful of major languages that are spoken natively or fluently used as common languages by millions of Africans. Here are some of the most prominent languages spoken in Africa:

Language Speakers Countries Spoken
Arabic 300 million Northern Africa, Chad, Sudan, Somalia
Swahili 100-150 million Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Hausa 50 million Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Sudan
Yoruba 40 million Nigeria, Benin, Togo
Igbo 27 million Nigeria
Amharic 25 million Ethiopia
Zulu 22 million South Africa

In addition to native speakers, languages like English, French, Portuguese, and Afrikaans are also widely used as lingua francas in many African countries due to colonial heritage. For example, English is the official language in countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, while French is the official language in much of West Africa and North Africa.

Regional Breakdown of Major Languages

Here is an overview of some of the most prominent languages spoken in key regions of Africa:

North Africa

  • Arabic dialects (Egyptian, Sudanese, Moroccan, Algerian, etc.)
  • Berber languages like Tamazight
  • French in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia
  • Italian in Libya

West Africa

  • Hausa
  • Yoruba
  • Igbo
  • Fula
  • Akan
  • Mossi
  • Ewe
  • Wolof
  • French in Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, etc.

Central Africa

  • Lingala
  • Kituba
  • Tshiluba
  • French in Chad, Congo, Cameroon, Gabon

East Africa

  • Swahili
  • Amharic in Ethiopia
  • Tigrinya in Eritrea
  • Somali
  • English in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania

Southern Africa

  • Zulu
  • Xhosa
  • Sesotho
  • Chichewa
  • English in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, Botswana
  • Afrikaans in South Africa, Namibia
  • Portuguese in Mozambique, Angola

Horn of Africa

  • Amharic in Ethiopia
  • Oromo in Ethiopia and Kenya
  • Somali
  • Tigrinya in Eritrea
  • Arabic in Sudan

Multilingualism in Africa

Throughout Africa, most countries are home to multiple ethnic groups speaking dozens or even hundreds of different indigenous languages and dialects. As a result, many Africans grow up speaking several native tongues.

For example, Nigeria alone has over 500 native languages. South Africa recognizes 11 official languages. Ethiopia is home to around 80 distinct languages. Many Africans become multilingual, speaking their own local mother tongue as well as African lingua francas like Swahili or Hausa along with ex-colonial languages like English, French, and Portuguese.

Code-switching between multiple languages is very common in much of Africa. Even within a single sentence, an African may switch between two or three languages that they speak fluently.

Language Preservation Efforts

Many indigenous African languages are at risk of endangerment or extinction. As dominant ex-colonial languages like English and French have expanded in education and government, local tongues have declined over generations.

However, efforts are underway to preserve African languages through dictionaries, teaching in schools, translations of books, media programs, and online resources. Governments are also promoting indigenous language use in public domains and popular culture.

Pan-African groups like the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) are working to facilitate and encourage the usage of African languages regionally and across borders. Preserving Africa’s diverse linguistic heritage remains an ongoing challenge.


Africa is home to an enormous diversity of languages across four major language families – Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoisan. Arabic, Swahili, Hausa, and other languages boast tens of millions of native speakers and serve as common languages. But hundreds of smaller indigenous tongues remain vital across the continent.

From Arabic in the north to Swahili in the east to Yoruba in the west and Zulu in the south, Africa’s languages reflect the rich cultural heritage of its peoples. Many Africans grow up speaking several languages fluently. Preserving and promoting this linguistic diversity remains an important task in the continent.