It’s not easy to count the most spoken languages of Africa. So which one should you learn to speak with the most people in Africa?
The most spoken languages in Africa (that is indigenous to Africa) are roughly a tie between Swahili, dialects of Arabic, and Hausa. But there are dozens of other languages spoken in Africa with tens of millions of speakers — and the number of people who speak them isn’t always clear.
Our original goal in learning an African language was to find the most “useful” African language to learn about Africa, to be able to speak with the most African people. So we started to ask: Which languages are most widely spoken in Africa? And which languages would best help us understand Africa and connect with people on a deeper level than just that of a tourist?
After all, our goal is to go deeper than being regular wazungu, as foreigners / Europeans / white people are called in many countries in Africa (they have different names in different regions). And language is one of our tools of choice.
We settled on learning Swahili, for many reasons: It’s spoken by 100M or so people, it’s in the Lion King, it sounds cool, and it’s used in a part of the country where there are gorgeous beaches, beautiful mountain ranges, and some of the best safari experiences in Africa.
But when we return to sub-Saharan Africa (because for the northern half of Africa we’d speak a dialect of Arabic), if we don’t go to brush up our Swahili, we’ll want to learn a language that connects us with another region. So this is our exploration of which of the many most-spoken languages of Africa it’ll be.
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Overview of the Most Spoken Languages of Africa
In brief, the most-spoken African languages include:
- South-East Africa: Swahili (~100M speakers), mostly in Tanzania and Kenya
- North Africa: Arabic dialects, including Egyptian Arabic (~100M speakers), Maghrebi Arabic/Darija (~100M speakers)
- Horn of Africa: Amharic (~25M speakers), spoken in Ethiopia, plus Oromo (50+M speakers) and Somali
- West Africa: Hausa (~115M speakers), mostly in the Sahel, as well as Yoruba, Igbo, and Fula.
- South Africa: Zulu and Xhosa (two similar languages)
- A note on Colonial Languages (English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish): Are they “African”?
Click on any of those links to find out more.
Why it’s hard to count speakers of languages in Africa
You’ll notice that many of our figures of the number of speakers of an African language have a “~” in front of them to indicate approximation.
“Africa” is a large continent with many languages — many indigenous, and a few colonial languages that can’t be ignored.
The continent of Africa includes countries from the very northern tip of Morocco, where people speak dialects of Arabic and also French, down to the southernmost point of South Africa, which has eleven official languages.
Africa also includes a number of islands, ranging from tiny to some that are bigger than many countries.
The first complicating factor in defining the most-spoken languages of Africa is that people may “speak” a language, but to varying degrees of fluency.
In many African countries typically there are one or two (or up to eleven!) “official” languages — but from a few up to many hundreds of languages spoken by communities.
For example, Swahili is the national language of Tanzania. Everyone goes to school in Swahili, and everyone uses Swahili in business and government.
But Tanzania has over 120 languages spoken in the country — many with over 1M native speakers. Go out to the Moshi area near Mt Kilimanjaro and you’re likely to meet people who speak Swahili fluently/natively, but identify with Chaga people and language in the home.
The same pattern is seen all over the continent. Most countries have multiple official languages, and most people in Africa we encounter speak multiple languages (to varying degrees of proficiency).
A second complicating factor of defining a most-spoken language of Africa is that there are dialect continuums, where people have to make different amounts of effort to understand another speaker.
For example, “Arabic” is not one language (excluding Modern Standard Arabic, which is more a parent language than a spoken language in itself). It’s a mistake to say “Arabic” is a big language, because two Arabic speakers from distant countries may not understand each other at all unless they slow down a lot and make an effort to speak standard Arabic as much as possible.
Swahili technically is comprised of a few smaller dialects, but for all practical purposes they’re mutually intelligible… until you come across a word you have never heard.
Thirdly, another complication in counting speakers of African languages is that numbers are hard to come by… and sometimes faked.
In Egypt, you can roughly presume that anyone who lives there speaks Egyptian Arabic.
But there are so many undocumented migrants in Egypt that one can’t even be sure how many people live in the country.
And nobody counts speakers of Egyptian Arabic because it’s not even officially a language. The official language of the country is Modern Standard Arabic, and people refer to Egyptian Arabic as an accent — or dialect.
In Ethiopia, language is very political. It’s not in the government’s interest to reveal just how many Oromo speakers are, because it’s already well-known that the Oromo outnumber the long-time ruling Amhara, who decided long ago that the country’s language should be Amharic.
In short, Africa is a huge, complicated place. But here’s a quick introduction to the most-spoken languages in Africa in case you want to take the plunge and learn one.
Swahili (100M speakers)
Aside from English, Swahili is the most-spoken language in Africa with an estimated 100M speakers.
But the vast majority (~95%) of Swahili’s speakers are not native speakers — though they might be fluent or highly proficient.
By “native” I mean: is this the language they speak at home, and with which people associate culturally? For most, the answer is “no”.
Swahili is only native to the coast of Tanzania and Kenya, including the beautiful island of Zanzibar. The name Swahili itself comes from the Arabic word for “coastal” (سواحلي, sawaaHili). People on the coast, for example in Zanzibar or in Mombasa, identify natively with the language.
But even if they’re not “native”, basically everyone in Tanzania speaks Swahili 100% fluently or highly proficiently, as it’s their language of education. And everyone in Kenya learns Swahili in school and uses it as a lingua franca with Kenyans from other ethnic groups, so they also speak it well too.
Tanzania adopted Swahili as its national language around fifty years ago, and now it’s more widely spoken in Tanzania than English.
Kenya has Swahili as one of its official languages, but in practice, most education is in English. Kenyans use Swahili (blended with local slang) in daily life, but for professional matters speak English, and generally prefer to speak English with anyone non-African (er, non-black, like us). To the point where we had to ask people why they were speaking English to one person, and Swahili to a person next to us. Kwa nini hutaki kuongea kiswahili na sisi? (“Why don’t you like speaking Swahili with us?”)It kind of embarrassed some people to realise why.
Swahili is part of the huge Bantu family of languages, which includes Zulu, Xhosa and Shona. Bantu languages are most common around Southern and Eastern Africa.
Most Bantu languages are tonal, and Zulu and Xhosa are famous for their click sounds, but Swahili doesn’t have either of those features — so it’s much easier for English speakers to learn.
The hardest part about Swahili is the complicated system of noun classes. But once you get around that, Swahili sounds beautiful.
Egyptian Arabic (100M speakers)
Egypt (and immediate surrounds) is home to the Egyptian Arabic dialect, a variant of Eastern Arabic. In Egypt, they call it “colloquial” Arabic (اللغه العاميه, al-lughah al-3amiyyah), to distinguish it from Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the language of news, business, and politics. Egyptians don’t even think of Egyptian Arabic as a language — they think of it as an “accent” (لهجة, lahgah)
In fact, if you ask many Egyptians (or anyone of Arab background in North Africa) if they know “Arabic”, they’ll assume you are referring to MSA. They’ll say they don’t know Arabic well… while talking to you in what, from your perspective, is Arabic! This is why we distinguish colloquial Arabic from Modern Standard Arabic.
Egyptian Arabic is one of the biggest and most influential spoken variants of Arabic. It’s very similar to other Eastern Arabic variants, like those spoken in Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. And because of the influence of Egyptian media (they produce a lot of highly addictive TV dramas and music), it’s well-understood by most Arabic-speakers.
The huge cultural influence of Egyptian Arabic is why we chose to learn it. Since leaving Egypt, we’ve spoken Egyptian Arabic in Spain (to a Lebanese person), France (to Lebanese and to Egyptians), and the USA (to a Jordanian), all with moderate success.
If you learn Arabic, you’ll also have a head-start on Swahili, Somali, and other African languages that have received a lot of vocabulary from Arabic. For example, the counting system of tens (20, 30, 40 etc.) in Swahili makes no sense until you realise it’s all Arabic!
Maghrebi Arabic/Darija (الدارجة) (~100M speakers)
Maghrebi (“Western”) Arabic, or ad-darijah (الدارجة) as it’s known locally, is a dialect continuum spoken mostly in North Africa, including in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Western Sahara, Libya, and Mauritania.
Together with Egyptian Arabic, Maghrebi/Darijah is one of the important Arabic dialects, and was one of the main ones we considered learning.
Darijah is spoken by roughly 100M speakers, but the exact number is complicated by modern politics.
For example, Moroccan and Algerian Darijah are mostly mutually intelligible. They have a similar foundation and accent, are very close regionally, and both have French influence.
But because the border between Morocco and Algeria closed decades ago, the accents have begun to drift apart a little. Travellers between Morocco and Algeria say they do still understand 95% of what’s being said, though.
Once you hit Tunisia, though, the language is less easy to understand if you’re familiar with Algerian/Moroccan language (according to a few speakers). You can still make it out, but you have to listen carefully. Nonetheless, it’s possible if the speakers speak slowly.
Between Western Arabic and Egyptian/Eastern Arabic, mutual intelligibility is very low, however. That’s why they deserve to be in two separate categories.
Many educated people in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia speak fluent French (and often English). Many will have been educated in university in French. For this reason, if you speak French, they may prefer to speak it for their own purposes — less to do with your Arabic level.
Further, in professional settings in North Africa, if they have to use just one language, many people from the region will prefer French and claim their “Arabic” is not good enough (again, referring to MSA, just like in Egypt).
The reasons why people say their Arabic is not good enough is complicated but is basically that if you’re of Arab descent, the standard expected of you in literary (Modern Standard) Arabic is very high. It’s hard to reach that level both because the language is hard and because there are fewer chances to use it. It’s easier to get to that level in French (or English).
Hausa (~115M speakers)
Hausa is a language with around ~65M native speakers, and another ~50M who speak it as a second language. The numbers vary a lot by source.
But nonetheless, Hausa is such a big language that some big claims are often made. For example, along with Oromo, Hausa one of the biggest African languages in terms of indigenous native speakers — unlike Swahili, where most speakers aren’t native.)
Hausa is a Chadic language, one of the major types of languages in Africa, and is mostly spoken in the northern part of Nigeria and in southern Niger.
Most Hausa speakers are in northern Nigeria and Niger, but you’ll find Hausa-speakers in many other countries around Central Africa.
In the largest city in Nigeria, Lagos (in the south), people are more likely to speak Yoruba or Igbo. In Abuja, the lesser-known capital city of Nigeria, people speak English as a lingua-franca. But in the second-largest city in Nigeria, Kano (in the North), people will speak Hausa.
The Hausa people are mostly Muslim, and because of the cultural influence of Islam, there are a lot of Arabic words in Hausa. In fact, Hausa was once written in Perso-Arabic script — though thankfully (for most learners) it’s now romanised.
A few words recognisable to Arabic speakers in Hausa are ashirin (twenty), launoni (colours), sukari (sugar), malami (teacher), ra’ayi (opinion), zamani (time period), and addini (religion).
Swahili has a lot more Arabic influence though, and much more borrowed vocabulary.
Zulu (25M speakers) + Xhosa (7M speakers)
Zulu and Xhosa are mostly mutually intelligible and share nearly all the same linguistic features, so let’s consider them together.
In the languages themselves, the languages are called isiZulu and isiXhosa, spoken respectively by the Zulu and Xhosa people.
But even though Zulu and Xhosa are two different languages, spoken by different ethnic groups, the number of differences is dwarfed by the degree of similarity.
The most distinctive feature of both Zulu and Xhosa is the click sounds. These are written as c (a click just behind the teeth), a q (a popping sound from the top of the mouth), and x (a click from the back of the palate). These all often modified by combining them with other letters., e.g. nc, gc ch and so on.
The second feature of both Zulu and Xhosa is that they’re tonal languages. Just like many Asian languages, consonants with tones can have different meanings.
Apart from that, Zulu and Xhosa have many of the language features of other Bantu languages like Swahili — they’re agglutinative (they stick words together, or WordTogetherStickers) and have conjugation and noun classes.
A quarter of the population of South Africa speaks Zulu, and half understand it. Another seven million people speak Xhosa.
Yoruba (40-50M speakers)
Yoruba is a West African language, and one of the two main languages of Southern Nigeria (other than English), the other main one being Igbo. There are roughly 40M native speakers, mostly people of Yoruba ethnicity, plus others who speak it as a second language.
Yoruba is the language of the Yoruba people who mostly live in the unofficial area known as “Yorubaland”. Yorubaland covers mostly south-western Nigeria and Benin, but there are communities of Yoruba speakers in Sierra Leone, Ghana, and a couple of other neighbouring countries.
The other two dominant languages in Centra/West Africa, Igbo and Hausa, are also mostly spoken in Nigeria. It’s a big country — over 190M!
Yoruba is free of clicks like Zulu and Xhosa but does have tones — six of them (four glides, and two transitions).
Yoruba is written in a Latin alphabet, even the tones. So the letters á, ā, ẚ, à, â, and ă all carry different pronunciations.
Pronunciation of most Yoruba vowels and consonants is pretty easy, except for a few likely to trip you up, including gb, a combination of both consonants but with no aspiration, the similar p, and a nasal n.
Amharic (25M speakers)
Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, and the lingua franca of politics and commerce.
The language of Ethiopia with the most speakers, on the other hand, is Oromo.
The choice of Amharic as Ethiopia’s national language is somewhat controversial, as it’s the language of just one (the Amhara) of the many ethnic groups of Ethiopia. Former rulers imposed Amharic as a national language as an attempt to unify the country. It kind of stuck… but three-quarters of the country’s population of >100M do not speak or understand Amharic to this day.
Politics notwithstanding, Amharic is a fascinating language. It’s the second-largest Semitic language after Arabic and ahead of Hebrew.
Amharic has preserved its own unique alphabet and left-to-right orthography:
The Amharic writing system bears little physical resemblance to Arabic or Hebrew. Some Amharic
Even though it’s only spoken by a quarter of the population, Amharic’s official status, the fact that it’s spoken natively by >70% of Addis Ababa’s population, and it rare status as an African language that has official national status, all make it a very important language for understanding Africa.
Igbo (27M speakers)
Igbo is another language that’s a major Nigerian language that’s spoken by many others in Central and West Africa — but mostly in south-east Nigeria, in an area commonly known as “Igboland”. It’s mostly spoken by Igbo people.
Interestingly, nobody even knows exactly where the word “Igbo” came from. Before European colonisation, the people now known as Igbo people were a group of separate village groups with very different names. But the languages they used all shared common elements, and a standard Igbo (like with many African languages, defined by a missionary for the purpose of translating the Bible) now unites them all.
The fact that Igbo is mostly spoken in Nigeria complicates learning Igbo. In Nigeria, the official language of education, government and business is English. Most people speak English, and many Igbo speakers prefer to use English, especially as the conversation level rises.
Igbo itself is heavily infused with loanwords, for a mixture of the above reasons — Igbo speakers generally know English, or are surrounded by English, or need to speak English to make themselves understood to others.
That said, if you want to make a special connection with the Nigerian Igbo-speaking community, there are a few resources out there for learning Igbo (for example, Sexy Igbo, which people on Reddit seem to like), and even just a couple of hundred words would take you a long way.
Oromo (50+M speakers)
Oromo is the other language that’s spoken in Ethiopia aside from the official language, Amharic. Aside from in Ethiopia, due to migration, Oromo is spoken by another 20M people worldwide, bringing the total Oromo-speaking population to over 50M.
Even though Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, there are more native speakers of Oromo in the country. In fact, the Oromo are the largest single people in East Africa, and one of the largest in all of Africa.
The Oromo language is the official working language of a few prominent regions in Ethiopia, including Harar and Dire Dawa. So if you’re into buying some of. the world’s best green coffee, you will find people are pretty receptive to Oromo there!
Oromo is from a different language family to Amharic; Amharic is a Semitic language whereas Oromo is a Cushitic one. Semitic languages are like Arabic and Hebrew, but Cushitic ones aren’t (I admittedly don’t know much about them except that they’re different).
Oromo is spoken by the Oromo people, who inhabit a now-informal region known as Oromia. Oromia was home to many pioneering human achievements, including pebble tools (circa 7,000 BC), domestication of animals (5000 BC), and the invention of their own indigenous democratic system. Oromia was independent until the 1890s, when the Abyssinians (now Ethiopia) conquered them and suppressed Oromo culture.
And that’s why you should learn a bit of Oromo. You’d be supporting a repressed people with very, very long history.
Colonial languages in Africa — French, Portuguese, Spanish, and of course English
It’s impossible to not mention colonial languages in Africa — even though this is an analysis of languages of African origin.
After all, colonial languages make up four of the six official languages of the African Union. English is the most widely spoken language across the African continent, followed by French, Portuguese, and even Spanish.
English is not only the official language of many countries in Africa; it’s also the principal language of education in many others, and a lingua franca otherwise.
The reason colonial languages have persisted is not just because it’s hard to shake a language (although it is).
Firstly, English or French connects Africans to a much broader global stage. It gives work and immigration that would otherwise not be as available. You may have met Nigerians all over the English-speaking world. Head to France, and you’ll meet a bunch of Senegalese.
The second reason colonial languages persist in African countries is that colonial languages are less divisive internally. Many (probably all) African countries have at least a few ethnic groups, and sometimes many, with historical conflicts between them.
In Uganda, for example, the most-spoken language in Uganda other than English is Luganda, a Bantu language. But to set the official language as Luganda would be to elevate in status one ethnic group in a multi-ethnic country. So English has less bad blood associated with it.
Colonial languages are often the cause of bad blood though — or at least associated with it. In Cameroon, the ruling class speak French, whereas a large part of the population does not and speaks English. The English-speaking population believes that the French-speaking population is exploiting the country, and declared an independent state of Ambazonia in 2017. The conflict has been known as the “Anglophone Crisis” and cast as the English-speakers revolting against the French-speakers. This is an inaccurate portrayal — like most struggles, the Cameroon crisis is about autonomy.
In Rwanda, the country never forgot that the French were aligned with the Hutu-led government that conducted the genocide against the Tutsi. There was even an investigation to see if the French were complicit in the genocide. Post-genocide governments broke off diplomatic relations with France in 2006, suddenly stopped using French in education, and the younger generation no longer speaks French as well.
Colonial languages spoken in Africa
Apart from English, French is the most widely-used colonial language in Africa. It’s the official language of many countries in Africa, and spoken by over 100M people, mostly in West Africa.
The biggest mostly French-speaking countries in Africa are Madagascar, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Guinea. Congo and the DRC both count French as an official language, but it’s spoken by around half the populations.
French is the official language of more countries, but the rate at which French is useable in those countries drops a lot. For example, French is the only official language of Mali, but it’s barely spoken by its 18M inhabitants, who use Bambara as a lingua franca.
And literacy levels of French in Africa are much lower than spoken usability. In Mali and in other African countries, French literacy creates yet another class and social divide that separates a ruling class from others.
Portuguese-speaking African countries mainly include Angola, Mozambique, as well as the smaller countries of Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tomé and Príncipe. If you add them up, there are around 33M Portuguese speakers in Africa between those countries.
Knowing Portuguese means you can speak with 18M (~70%) of Angola’s 25M population, 15M (~50%) of Mozambique’s 30M population, most of Cape Verde’s population of ~500K (notwithstanding that many use a local creole), a third of Guinea-Bissau’s population of 1.5M (the rest speak a creole, which you might catch on to), and most of São Tomé and Príncipe’s tiny population of 200K.
And knowing Spanish grants you access to Equatorial Guinea, where two-thirds of the country’s population of 1.3M speak Spanish fluently.