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African Languages

What is Spoken Where?


Men laughing, Chefchauen, Morocco, North Africa
David Clapp/The Image Bank/Getty Images
There are literally thousands of indigenous languages spoken in Africa and many more dialects. Every African country you visit will no doubt be home to more than a dozen (if not several hundred) languages, even the smaller countries. But because of the sheer amount of linguistic diversity, every African country has an official language (or 11 in the case of South Africa) which acts as the lingua franca for (at least) a reasonably sized region.

Since almost every African country was at one time a colony, speaking English, Portuguese, or French will also help you communicate. Many Africans will speak Creole or pidgin versions of these European languages and they may not be so easy to understand when you first hear them.

Arabic is very handy in Northern Africa and Swahili will help you get by in much of East Africa.

Learning a few phrases in a local language will do much to endear you to the local population and help you get around. If you're spending more than a few weeks in a country it is definitely worth buying a phrasebook.

What African Language is Spoken Where?

Below you'll find a list of the major languages spoken in the more common African travel destinations. As a general rule, the more rural a place is, the less likely you are to get by with just English, Portuguese or French.

Official Language: Portuguese
Other languages spoken in Angola are mostly Bantu languages which include Umbundu, Nyemba and Chokwe.

Official Language: French
Other languages spoken in Benin include English (in tourist areas), Fon and Yoruba (south), Beriba and Dendi (north).

Official Language: English
The principal language spoken in Botswana is Setswana (or Tswana) which is spoken by 90 of the population.

Official Languages: English and French
French is more widely spoken than English but a combination of the two is becoming more widespread -- frananglais. Over 200 hundred languages are spoken in Cameroon from the Bantu and Sudanic groups.

Official Language: Arabic
Modern Standard Arabic is widely understood in Egypt and is used by the media and Government. But most Egyptians on the streets of Cairo and Luxor speak a colloquial Arabic that is unique to Egypt. English is spoken by many people in the major tourist areas and some French as well.

Official Language: Amharic
Other important languages in Ethiopia include Oromo, Somali and Tigrinya. English is taught in schools and many people will know a few words.

Official Language: French
Other important languages in Gabon include Fang, Mbere, Punu and Sira.

The Gambia
Official Language: English
Other important lanugages in The Gambia include Wolof, Mandinka and Pulaar.

Official Language: English
Other important languages (out of 79) spoken in Ghana include Twi, Ga, Ewe, Dagari and Dagbani.

Official Languages: English and (Ki)Swahili
Other important languages include Luo, Kikuyu, Luyia and Kamba. Young urbanites often speak Sheng which is a based on Swahili but uses words from many other languages.

Official Language: Arabic
If you're traveling to Libya you should pack an Arabic phrase book since little else is spoken, especially outside the main cities.

Official Language: Malagasy and French
Malagasy is spoken by everyone in Madagascar and many people also speak French especially in the business and government sectors.

Official Language: English
Chichewa is probably spoken more widely by most of the population than English in Malawi, but you can get by without it for the most part. Yao and Tumbuka are commonly spoken around the lakeshore.

Official Language: French
Bambara is the most commonly spoken language in Mali, other languages include Tamashek, Songhai and Fulfulde.

Official Language: Arabic
As in Egypt, Modern Standard Arabic is widely understood but Moroccans on the streets of Casablanca and Marrakech speak a colloquial Arabic called Darija that is unique to Morocco and influenced by the Berber languages also commonly spoken throughout the country. French is useful as many educated people will speak it and it may help you get from place to place. English is not commonly spoken or understood in Morocco.

Official Language: Portuguese
Other important languages (out of the 43 mostly Bantu languages) include Lomwe, Makhuwa, Ndau and Tsonga.

What African Language is Spoken Where? ... continued for countries N - Z

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