Even for a continent with 54 very different countries, Africa has a lot of languages. It is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 languages are spoken here, many with their own set of varying dialects. To make things even more confusing, in many countries the official language is not the same as the lingua franca – that is, the language spoken by the majority of its citizens.
If you’re planning a trip to Africa, it’s a good idea to research both the official language and the lingua franca of the country or region you’re traveling to. That way, you can attempt to learn a few keywords or phrases before you go. This can be difficult – especially when a language isn’t written phonetically (like Afrikaans), or includes click consonants (like Xhosa) – but making an effort will be greatly appreciated by the people you meet on your travels.
If you’re traveling to an ex-colony (like Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea or Senegal), you’ll find that European languages can also come in handy. However, be prepared for the Portuguese, Spanish or French that you hear there to sound quite different than it would in Europe. In this article, we look at the official and most widely spoken languages in every African country, from Algeria to Zimbabwe.
Official Languages: Modern Standard Arabic and Tamazight (Berber) The most widely spoken languages in Algeria are Algerian Arabic and Berber.
Official Language: Portuguese Portuguese is spoken as a first or second language by just over 70% of the population. There are approximately 38 indigenous languages in Angola, including Umbundu, Kikongo, and Chokwe.
Official Language: French There are 55 languages in Benin, the most popular of which are Fon and Yoruba (in the south) and Beriba and Dendi (in the north). French is spoken by only 35% of the population.
Official Language: English Although English is the primary written language in Botswana, the vast majority of the population speak Setswana as their mother tongue.
Official Language: French In addition to French, there are more than 60 indigenous languages in Burkina Faso of which Mossi is the most widely spoken.
Official Languages: Kurundi, French and English Of its three official languages, Kurundi is the one spoken by the majority of Burundi’s population.
Official Languages: English and French There are almost 250 languages in Cameroon. Of the two official languages, French is by far the most widely spoken, while other important regional tongues include Fang and Cameroonian Pidgin English.
Official Language: Portuguese The mother tongue of almost all Cape Verdeans is Portuguese-based Cape VerdeCreole.
Central African Republic
Official Languages: French and Sangho Sangho is the lingua franca in the Central African Republic although over 70 different languages are spoken across the nation.
Official Languages: French and Modern Standard Arabic Chad’s lingua franca is a vernacular version of Arabic known as Chadian Arabic.
Official Languages: Comorian, French and Arabic Over 96% of the country’s citizens speak Comorian, a language that has many similarities to Swahili.
Official Language: French French is the official language and the lingua franca in Cote d’Ivoire, although approximately 78 indigenous languages are also spoken.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Official Language: French Four indigenous languages are recognized as national languages in the DRC: Kituba, Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba.
Official Languages: Arabic and French The majority of Djiboutians speak either Somali or Afar as their first language.
Official Language: Modern Standard Arabic The lingua franca of Egypt is Egyptian Arabic, which is spoken by most of the population. English and French are also common in urban areas.
Official Languages: Spanish, French and Portuguese Equatorial Guinea is the only African country with Spanish as an official language. Over 67% of citizens can speak it.
Official Language: N/A Eritrea does not have an official language. The most widely spoken language is Tigrinya.
Official Languages: Swazi and English Swazi/Swati is spoken by approximately 95% of people in eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland.
Official Language: Amharic Other important languages in Ethiopia include Oromo, Somali and Tigrinya. English is the most popular foreign language taught in schools.
Official Language: French More than 80% of people in Gabon can speak French, but most use one of 40 indigenous languages as their mother tongue. Of these, the most important are Fang, Mbere, and Sira.
Official Language: English Mandingo, Fula and Wolof are the three most popular languages in The Gambia.
Official Language: English There are around 80 different languages in Ghana. English is the lingua franca, but the government also sponsors eight African languages, including Twi, Ewé, and Dagbani.
Official Language: French There are over 40 native languages spoken in Guinea of which six have been recognized as national languages: Fula, Maninka, Susu, Kissi, Kpelle and Toma.
Official Language: Portuguese Around 91% of the population can speak Portuguese. Around 44% speak Guinea-Bissau Creole as well.
Official Languages: Swahili and English Both of the official languages serve as a lingua franca in Kenya, but of the two, Swahili is the most widely spoken.
Official Languages: Sesotho and English More than 90% of Lesotho’s residents use Sesotho as a first language, although bilingualism is encouraged.
Official Language: English There are more than 30 native languages spoken in Liberia, but none of them are spoken by a distinct majority of the population.
Official Language: Modern Standard Arabic Arabic is spoken by most Libyans, whether they speak Libyan, Egyptian or Tunisian Arabic.
Official Languages: Malagasy and French Malagasy is spoken throughout Madagascar, although many people also speak French as a second language.
Official Language: English There are 16 languages in Malawi, of which Chichewa is the most widely spoken.
Official Language: French 13 native languages are given legal status in Mali, of which Bambara is the most widely spoken.
Official Language: Arabic Spoken Arabic in Mauritania is very different from the Modern Standard Arabic used for official purposes and is known as Hassaniya.
Official Languages: French and English The vast majority of Mauritians speak Mauritian Creole, a language that is based predominantly on French but also borrows words from English, African and Southeast Asian languages.
Official Languages: Modern Standard Arabic and Amazigh (Berber) The most widely spoken language in Morocco is Moroccan Arabic, although French serves as a second language for many of the country’s educated citizens.
Official Language: Portuguese There are 43 languages spoken in Mozambique. The most widely spoken is Portuguese, followed by African languages like Makhuwa, Swahili and Shangaan.
Official Language: English Despite its status as the official language of Namibia, less than 1% of Namibians speak English as their mother tongue. The most widely spoken language is Oshiwambo, followed by Khoekhoe, Afrikaans and Herero.
Official Language: French There are 10 additional national languages in Niger, of which Hausa is the most widely spoken.
Official Language: English Nigeria is home to more than 520 languages. The most widely spoken include English, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.
Republic of Congo
Official Language: French The most widely spoken native languages are Lingala and Kituba.
Official Languages: Kinyarwanda, French, English and Swahili Kinyarwanda is the mother tongue of most Rwandans, although English and French are also widely understood throughout the country.
São Tomé and Príncipe
Official Language: Portuguese Portuguese is spoken by virtually all of the population although Portuguese-based creole languages also exist.
Official Language: French Senegal has 36 languages, of which the most widely spoken is Wolof.
Official Languages: Seychellois Creole, French and English Almost 90% of the population speaks Seychellois Creole.
Official Language: English Krio, an English-based creole language, is spoken as the lingua franca across the country.
Official Languages: Somali and Arabic Somali is the mother tongue of Somalia’s largest ethnic group and is therefore the country’s most spoken language.
Official Languages: Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Venda, Swati, Sotho, Northern Sotho, Tsonga and Tswana
Many South Africans are bilingual and can speak at least two of the country’s 11 official languages. Zulu and Xhosa are the most common mother tongues, although English is understood by most people.
Official Language: English There are over 60 indigenous languages in South Sudan. The most popular include Dinka, Nuer, Bari and Zande.
Official Languages: Arabic and English Sudanese Arabic is the most widely spoken language in Sudan.
Official Languages: Swahili and English Both Swahili and English are lingua francas in Tanzania, although more people can speak Swahili than English.
Official Language: French Two of Togo’s indigenous languages have national language status: Ewé and Kabiyé.
Official Language: Literary Arabic Almost all Tunisians speak Tunisian Arabic, with French as a common second language.
Official Languages: English and Swahili Swahili and English are the lingua francas in Uganda, although most people use an indigenous language as their mother tongue. The most popular include Luganda, Soga, Chiga and Runyankore.
Official Language: English There are more than 70 different languages and dialects in Zambia. Seven are officially recognized, including Bemba, Nyanja, Lozi, Tonga, Kaonde, Luvale and Lunda.
Official Languages: Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, sign language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa
Of Zimbabwe’s 16 official languages, Shona, Ndebele and English are the most widely spoken.