Africa is a continent with a rich heritage and history, full of stories to tell, things to see, and people to meet. Should you want to meet some of these wonderful people yourself, perhaps it would be a good starting point for you to learn a little of the local lingo.
But where to start?
In our last article we spoke about the sheer volume of numbers of languages spoken across Africa, and took a little tour of the continent to discover where they were spoken.
This time, to give a more realistic overview of the range of languages you might hear on a trip to Africa, we are going to look at those that are most widely spoken. Here are the top ten for you.
After Arabic, Amharic is the second most spoken Semitic language throughout the world, and a member of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages. It is spoken in Ethiopia, where it is the official working language of the country. Looking for a reason to visit Ethiopia? The Great Rift Valley cuts through the country, from North-East to South, and this valley is one of the most significant physical details on the planet – definitely worth seeing.
Arabic is a Central Semitic language, a member of the Afro-Asiatic family. It is the most widespread official language of the African continent, serving as an official language for Algeria, Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, as well as a co-official language in Morocco, Eritrea, Somalia, Chad, Sudan, Djibouti and Western Sahara. From the land of the Pharaohs in Egypt to the home of couscous in Morocco, there are ample reasons to travel to these beautiful countries and pick up a little Arabic along the way.
English is a West Germanic language, belonging to the Indo-European language family. Perhaps this should come as no surprise, but English is actually spoken in many places throughout Africa. The countries where you will most typically hear English are: Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Libya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana. In fact in South Africa, it is one of the eleven languages given official status.
French is a Romance language and a member of the Indo-European language family. You will hear French spoken in: Algeria, Benin, Burkina, Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo, the Republic of the Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Morocco, Niger, Réunion, Rwanda, Senegal and the Seychelles. Where would you start?
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Hausa is a Chadic language of the Afro-Asiatic family, closely related to Berber, Arabic and Hebrew. It is spoken in Niger and Nigeria, and can also be heard in Cameroon, Chad, Sudan and the Ivory Coast. The Hausa people constitute the largest ethnic group in West Africa, where it is spoken as a native language by some 25 million people.
Igbo belongs to the Niger-Congo family of languages and has over twenty separate dialects. It is principally spoken in Nigeria, where it is the native language of the Igbo people. Spiritual beliefs are incredibly important to the Igbo, so this is something to be aware of when you travel in this region. But you are sure to be welcomed and possibly even introduced to delicious local food made from yam, cassava and taro.
Oromo is a Cushitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is spoken in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, Mali, Egypt and is considered the fourth most widely spoken language across the African continent. Travelling in this region will find you exotic animals, hot springs, and ancient places to visit such as Harlaa.
Swahili, or Kiswahili, is a Bantu language of the Niger-Congo family. It is the official language of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. There are also communities in Rwanda, Mozambique, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo that speak Swahili. Because, like English, Swahili has no lexical tone, it is probably one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn. You probably know a word or two already if you are a fan of The Lion King: rafiki means friend, pumbaa means stupid, and simba means lion.
Yoruba is a member of the Volta-Niger branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages. It is principally found in Benin and Nigeria. The Yoruba people are lively and expressive, hosting festivals and celebrations for everything from weddings to housewarmings, so expect bright colours and loud music should you choose to visit here!
Zulu has its place on the Bantu/Nguni branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages. Zulu is the most widely spoken language of South Africa, and is also spoken in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique and Swaziland. It is unique in that it has a tongue clicking ‘system’ that is part and parcel of the spoken language, and difficult for non-natives to reproduce. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a go!
Is your appetite for Africa sufficiently whetted yet? We hope so! There is so much to see and do across the continent that you really will be spoiled for choice, wherever you decided to visit.
Next week, we are going to stop moving around quite so much and stay put in one African country, which is in the Guinness Book of Records for having the highest number of official spoken languages. Can you guess which one?