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Is African a Language? The Languages of Africa Explained

You may be wondering what languages do they speak in Africa? Is African a language?

African is often referred to as though it’s one language, but there’s much more to it than that.

In this post we’ll debunk all the myths about African languages and finally set the record straight on if African really is a language.

Is African a Language?

No, African is not a language but it can refer to a group of languages. 

Africa is a huge continent with 54 countries all with distinct history and cultures.

In fact, over 1.2 billion people live in Africa so it’s hardly surprising that they don’t all speak one language. 

Africa is actually the most linguistically diverse continent on the planet with more languages than any other continent!

African languages are also incredibly diverse with 6 different major language families, various creoles, sign languages and other language isolates.

As well as hundreds of native African languages, there are many non-African languages spoken across the continent.

Due to migration and colonialism, many other languages have been brought to Africa over the years. 

Two big ones are Arabic, which was brought by Arab settlers centuries ago, and French, which was brought over by French and Belgian colonists.

How Many Languages are Spoken in Africa?

There are approximately 1,800 languages spoken in Africa. This represents around one third of the world’s languages. 

To put this into perspective, Europe only has around 200 languages.

Nigeria alone has over 500 languages making it one of the world’s most linguistically diverse countries.

Africa has at least 75 languages which have more than a million speakers.

Some of these languages, such as Swahili, Hausa and Yoruba, are spoken by tens of millions of people in several different African countries. 

Others, such as Laal, Shabo and Dahalo are spoken by just a few hundred people and are on the brink of extinction.

UCLA reports that over 300 African languages are endangered.

Many African languages are just spoken languages and have no writing system. Others are much more well documented.

What is the Main Language Spoken in Africa?

The most widely spoken language in Africa is Swahili which has between 100 and 150 million speakers. 

It’s important to note that there are over 1.2 billion people in Africa and just 100 million of them speak Swahili so if you happen to meet an African person, chances are they don’t speak Swahili. 

Swahili is mainly spoken in Tanzania, Kenya, Comoros, Uganda, parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and a few more countries.

The second most widely spoken language in Africa is Arabic which is spoken by approximately 100 million people, mainly in northern Africa.

What Language do Africans Speak?

African is not a single language and, in fact, Africans tend to speak many different languages. Most African people are at least bilingual (some even speak 3 or more languages).

A study of 100 inhabitants in a city in western Uganda found that the average speaker knows 4 languages!

Whilst thousands of languages are spoken in Africa they can be divided up into 6 major language families. 

Language families group together languages that descend from a common ancestral language. 

I’ve summarized these 6 main language families found in Africa below:

Map showing where the language families of Africa are spoken.
Map showing where the language families of Africa are spoken.


  • These are spoken in west, central, southeast and southern Africa.
  • There are between 1,350 and 1,650 Niger-Congo languages.
  • Includes Swahili, Yoruba, Igbo, Fula, Lingala, Amharic and Shona.
  • This is the largest language family in the world.


  • These are spoken in north Africa and the horn of Africa.
  • There are between 200 and 300 Afroasiatic languages.
  • Includes Arabic, Somali, Berber, Hausa, Amharic and Oromo.


  • These are spoken in South Africa and Namibia.
  • There are approximately 445 Indo-European languages.
  • Common Indo-European languages spoken in Africa are Afrikaans, French, English, Portuguese, German, Italian and Spanish. 
  • These are all non-native African languages that were brought to Africa by colonialism. 
  • The French, Germans, Dutch, Belgians, Portuguese, English, Spanish and Italians all controlled territories in Africa at one point.


  • These are spoken in Tanzania, Eritrea, Sudan, Chad and Mali.
  • There are approximately 80 Nilo-Saharan languages.
  • Includes Luo, Songhay, Nubian and Maasai.


  • These are spoken in Madagascar.
  • There are 1257 Austronesian languages overall however the main one spoken in Africa is Malagasy which is the official language of Madagascar.


  • These are spoken mainly in southern Africa.
  • There are between 40 and 70 Khoisan languages. 
  • Includes Khoekhoe and Sandawe.
  • These languages have distinctive ‘click’ sounds.

There are also several other small language families, language isolates and creoles scattered around the continent.

Creoles In Africa

A creole language is a mother tongue that develops from a European language and local languages.

In Africa, most creole languages are based on either French, English or Portuguese.

English-based creole languages in Africa include Cameroonian Creole, Krio (spoken in Sierra Leone) and Liberian Creole.

French-based creole languages in Africa include Mauritian Creole and Seychellois Creole. 

Portuguese-based creole languages in Africa include Cape Verdean Creole and Annobonese Creole (spoken in Equatorial Guinea).

Most Spoken Languages in Africa

There are around 1,800 languages spoken in Africa but which are the most spoken? 

Below I’ve summarized the most spoken languages in Africa including how many people speak them and where they are spoken.

Map showing the most spoken languages in Africa and approximately where they are spoken.
Map showing the most spoken languages in Africa and approximately where they are spoken.

1. Swahili

Number of speakers: 100 – 150 million

Where it is spoken: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Comoros, Mozambique, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo

Language family: Niger-Congo

Swahili is also commonly known by its native name: Kiswahili. 

This Bantu language is the native language of millions of Africans and is even the official language of several countries and areas in Africa. 

16% to 20% of Swahili words are actually Arabic words including the word ‘swahili’ itself. In Arabic, this word means ‘of the coast’. 

This is mainly due to contact from Arabian traders with the inhabitants of Africa’s east coast over several centuries.

Swahili, being the most widely spoken language in Africa, is taught in schools in many countries including South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

Swahili is the first language of many Africans but has also become a common second language spoken by tens of millions of people, principally in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

2. Arabic

Number of speakers: 100 – 150 million

Where it is spoken: Egypt, Comoros, Djibouti, Chad, Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia

Language family: Afroasiatic

Interestingly, although Arabic is regarded as one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, 62% of the total speakers of Arabic are Africans.

Arabic is the official language in 11 African countries (listed above). A range of regional dialects are commonly spoken along with Modern Standard Arabic which is commonly used in the media. 

Following the Arab conquest of North Africa that began in the 7th century, Arabic spread across North Africa and today still remains one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa.

Many Arabs migrated to North Africa and today the descendents of the original Arab settlers continue to speak Arabic as their first language.

Arabic actually has around 30 different varieties so the Arabic spoken in North Africa is different to the Arabic spoken in the Middle East.

Interestingly, many of the Arabic dialects are not mutually intelligible.

Egypt has the largest population of Arabic speakers in the world with around 65 million speakers. Next is Algeria with 29 million.

3. French

Number of speakers: 141 million

Where it is spoken: Gabon, Mauritius, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Seychelles, Guinea, Benin, Burkina Faso, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Niger, Togo

Language family: Indo-European

French is widely spoken in 34 African countries – this includes those who speak French as a first and second language. 

In Africa, French is commonly spoken alongside indigenous languages however, in a number of urban areas, it has become a first language.

There are actually more French speakers in Africa than in France and Africa has the largest amount of French speakers in the world. 

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the most populated French-speaking country in the world with a population of 92 million.

French was brought to Africa through colonialism which began in the 19th century. France and Belgium colonized several west and central African countries bringing the French language with them.

France and Belgium lost control of their African colonies during the 1950s and 1960s however French still continues to be spoken widely.

4. Hausa

Number of speakers: 50 – 70 million

Where it is spoken: Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Togo, Ghana, Chad

Language family: Afroasiatic

Hausa is primarily spoken by the Hausa people who span several west African countries. They can mainly be found in Niger, northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon and Chad. 

Hausa is not only spoken by the native Hausa community but is also used as a trade language across much of West Africa. 

It is actually one of the most important indigenous languages used in west and central Africa.

There is even a Hausa-speaking film industry which is known as ‘Kannywood’. 

Related Post: How To Say Hello In Hausa + Other Useful Greetings

5. Amharic

Number of speakers: 57 million

Where it is spoken: Ethiopia

Language family: Afroasiatic

Amharic is the native language of the Amhara people and also serves as a lingua franca for many people living in Ethiopia.

Amharic is the official working language of the Ethiopian government. It is the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia with 32 million native speakers and another 25 million second language speakers.

Amharic is one of the few African languages that has its own alphabet. Amharic is written from left to right using a system that developed from the Ge’ez script.

Check out the Amharic script below for a quick taster:

ተወልዱ፡ኵሉ፡ሰብእ፡ግዑዛን፡ወዕሩያን፡በማዕረግ፡ወብሕግ።ቦሙ፡ኅሊና፡ወዐቅል፡ወይትጌበሩ፡አሐዱ፡ ምስለ፡አሀዱ፡በመንፈሰ፡እኍና።

Most other African languages use either the Arabic or Latin alphabets. 

Related Post: How To Learn The Amharic Alphabet Easily

6. Yoruba

Number of speakers: 30 – 50 million

Where it is spoken: Nigeria, Benin, Togo

Language family: Niger-Congo

Yoruba is primarily spoken in West Africa, most prominently Southwestern Nigeria, and is spoken by the Yoruba people.

As well as being the first language of millions of people in West Africa, Yoruba is also a common second language for people who live in the area.

Whilst there are several Yoruba dialects, a standard written version of the language was developed after Bishop Samuel Crowther (a Yoruba speaker) translated the Bible in 1884. 

There is actually a substantial amount of literature written in Yoruba including books, newspapers and more.

7. Fula

Number of speakers: 40 million

Where it is spoken: Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger

Language family: Niger-Congo

Fula, also commonly referred to as Fulani, Fulfulde or Pulaar, is the first language of the Fula people who reside in 20 countries in north west Africa.

Fula is also spoken as a second language by various other people in the region.

There are various different Fula dialects but all are considered to be the same language.

8. Oromo

Number of speakers: 30 million

Where it is spoken: Ethiopia, Kenya

Language family: Afroasiatic

Oromo is native to the Ethiopian state of Oromia and is predominantly spoken by the Oromo people. 

The Oromo people account for more than 33% of the Ethiopian population and is the second most widely spoken language in Ethiopia.

Oromo serves as one of the official working languages in Ethiopia and is the principal language of education in several Ethiopian states.

9. Igbo

Number of speakers: 24 – 30 million

Where it is spoken: Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea

Language family: Niger-Congo

Igbo actually has more than 20 dialects and is the native language of the Igbo people who are an ethnic group from Eastern Nigeria.

The Igbo people are actually the largest ethnic group in Africa.

Igbo is an official language in Nigeria and also a recognised minority language in Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon.

It is the main language of trade and commerce in some parts of Nigeria and is taught in many Nigerian schools. 

10. Malagasy

Number of speakers: 25 million

Where it is spoken: Madagascar

Language family: Austronesian

Malagasy is the national language of Madagascar. It was originally brought to Madagascar by the settlement of Austronesian people from the Sunda islands in the 5th century. 

Today the Sunda islands are made up of Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is most closely related to the Ma’anyan language which is still spoken in Borneo today. 

Malagasy uses many Malay and Javanese loanwords due to its history of settlement from Malaysia and Indonesia.

More recently, the language has incorporated Bantu and Arabic loanwords which were brought over by new traders from Africa.

11. Somali

Number of speakers: 21 million

Where it is spoken: Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti

Language family: Afroasiatic 

Somali is the main language spoken by the Somali people who predominantly live in Somalia but also Djibouti and Ethiopia.

95% of Somalia’s population speak Somali as well as the majority of people in Djibouti.

The Somali language is officially written with the Latin alphabet although the Arabic alphabet is commonly used informally. 

12. Luganda

Number of speakers: 21 million

Where it is spoken: Uganda, Rwanda

Language family: Niger-Congo

Luganda is one of the major languages spoken in Uganda mainly by the Baganda people. 

It is actually the most widely spoken Ugandan language and is used as a working language in parts of the country. 

Luganda is also taught in many schools across Uganda especially in eastern Uganda where the majority of Baganda people reside.

After English, Luganda is the most spoken language in Uganda.

13. Zulu

Number of speakers: 12 million

Where it is spoken: South Africa

Language family: Niger-Congo

Zulu, often referred to in its native form isiZulu, is the native language of the Zulu people who predominantly reside in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

Zulu became one of South Africa’s 11 official languages in 1994. 

Zulu is actually the most widely spoken home language in South Africa with 24% of the population speaking it natively. Additionally, it is understood by 50% of the population.

The Zulu language possesses several click sounds which are typical of South African languages. Click sounds are not found in the rest of Africa. 

Zulu has borrowed many words from other languages, especially Afrikaans and English.

14. Shona

Number of speakers: 10 million

Where it is spoken: Zimbabwe

Language family: Niger-Congo

Shona is principally spoken by the Shona people of Zimbabwe. In fact, Shona is actually the mother tongue of 75% of the population of Zimbabwe. 

There are actually several dialects and sub-dialects of Shona including Karanga, Zezuru and Korekore.

Most people speak in their dialects but will use Standard Shona in writing.

Standard Shona is taught in most Zimbabwe schools as it is an official language of Zimbabwe.

It is also the national working language of the country and is used in newspapers and on the radio.


Few Africans speak English natively but it is a very common second language in Africa. 

Approximately 130 million people in Africa can speak English to some level (proficiency varies).

Of these 130 million Africans, just 6.5 million speak English natively.

English is used by the government and in schools in many African countries.

Spoken Languages of African Countries

There are thousands of languages spoken in Africa and each African country has its own distinct culture which often includes different languages.

Below I’ve listed each of the 54 African countries and which languages are commonly spoken there.

  • Algeria – Arabic, Berber, French
  • Angola – Portuguese, Kimbundu, Umbundu, Chokwe, Kikongo
  • Benin – French, Fon, Yoruba, Beriba, Dendi
  • Botswana – Setswana, English
  • Burkina Faso – French, 60 indigenous languages including Mossi
  • Burundi – Kirundi, French, English
  • Cameroon – French, English, Fang, Cameroonian Pidgin English
  • Cape Verde – Portuguese, Cape Verdean Creole
  • Central African Republic – French, Sangho
  • Chad – Arabic, French
  • Comoros – Comorian, French, Arabic
  • Côte d’Ivoire – French, 78 native languages
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo – French, Kituba, Lingala, Swahili, Tshiluba
  • Djibouti – French, Arabic, Somali, Afar
  • Egypt – Arabic, English, French
  • Equatorial Guinea – Spanish, French, Portuguese
  • Eritrea – Tigrinya
  • eSwatini – Swazi, English
  • Ethiopia – Amharic, Oromo, Somali, Tigrinya
  • Gabon – French, 40 indigenous languages including Fang, Mbere and Sira
  • The Gambia – English, Mandinka, Wolof, Fula
  • Ghana – English, 80 indigenous languages including Twi, Ewe and Dagbani
  • Guinea – French, 40 indigenous languages including Fula, Maninka, Susu, Kissi, Kpelle and Toma
  • Guinea-Bissau – Portuguese, Guinea-Bissau Creole
  • Kenya – English, Swahili
  • Lesotho – Sesotho, English
  • Liberia – English, 30 native languages
  • Libya – Arabic
  • Madagascar – Malagasy, French
  • Malawi – English, Chichewa
  • Mali – French, 13 native languages including Bambara
  • Mauritania – Arabic
  • Mauritius – English, French, Mauritian Creole
  • Morocco – Arabic, Berber, French
  • Mozambique – Portuguese, Makhuwa, Swahili, Shangaan
  • Namibia – English, Afrikaans, German, Oshiwambo, Khoekhoe, Herero
  • Niger – French, Hausa
  • Nigeria – English, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba
  • Republic of the Congo – French, Kituba, Lingala
  • Rwanda – Kinyarwanda, French, English, Swahili
  • São Tomé and Príncipe – Portuguese
  • Senegal – French, Wolof
  • Seychelles – Seychellois Creole, English, French
  • Sierra Leone – English, Krio
  • Somalia – Somali, Arabic
  • South Africa – English, Zulu, Swazi, Afrikaans, Pedi, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Xhosa, Venda, Ndebele
  • Sudan – Arabic, English
  • South Sudan – English, 60 indigenous languages including Dinka, Nuer, Bari and Zande
  • Tanzania – Swahili, English
  • Togo – French, Ewe, Kabiye
  • Tunisia – Arabic, French
  • Uganda – English, Swahili, Luganda, Soga, Chiga, Runyankore
  • Zambia – English, 70 native languages including Bemba, Nyanja, Lozi, Tonga, Kaonde, Luvale and Lunda
  • Zimbabwe – Shona, English, Ndebele

This list represents both the official languages and recognised national languages of the countries of Africa however there are hundreds more languages spoken within these countries.

Thanks for reading this post on the languages spoken in Africa which answers the question ‘is African a language?’. 

Hopefully you’re now well equipped and know the differences between the various African language families.

It’s super interesting to know that there are over 1,800 different languages used in Africa and each one has its own long history and culture.

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