The Top 50 Languages Spoken in Africa (Updated in 2023)
Guys, Africa is a huge continent.
I mean, really huge—more so than you might expect. We’re talking a continent as big as the U.S., India, China and most of Europe combined. It’s also one of the most diverse continents, both culturally and linguistically.
For us language enthusiasts, Africa has more languages than you can count. In fact, it’s estimated that there may be over 3,000 languages spoken in Africa, from rare and exotic tongues to some of the world’s most common languages.
Unfortunately, I’ve found that, in online language learning communities, African languages are widely overlooked. But they shouldn’t be, because they’re invaluable for travelers, professionals in the business world and anyone with curiosity about the world, its languages and its cultures.
So, let’s take a little trip through Africa, exploring the continent’s 50 most spoken languages.
- The Top Ten Languages in Africa
- The Next 40 Most Spoken Languages in Africa
The Top Ten Languages in Africa
Number of speakers: Over 300 million
Example phrase: السلام عليك [as-salām ‘alaykum] (May peace be with you)
If you decide to learn Arabic, you’ll probably get more bang for your buck than you even thought possible.
Arabic is a Semitic language and is an official language in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Libya and Eritrea. It’s also widely spoken in many other countries.
Arabic comes in a number of varieties, but if you learn Modern Standard Arabic, you’ll be able to communicate with most Arabic speakers around the world. Modern Standard Arabic is the written form of the language—this is the Arabic used in news articles, online and in novels. It’s spoken in newscasts and in some TV shows.
However, this is not the form of Arabic that native speakers always learn as children. They learn various dialects of Arabic, unique to their regions. Some of these dialects are more mutually intelligible than others, but learning, say, Moroccan or Egyptian Colloquial Arabic can help you deeply connect with a culture in a way that Modern Standard Arabic can’t.
Number of speakers: 120 million in Africa
Example phrase: Bonjour (Good day)
French can get you pretty far in many African countries, especially in North, West and Central Africa, where a number of countries were French colonies in the past.
African French has unique features that take some getting used to. Its accents and vocabulary are heavily influenced by surrounding native African languages, and the resulting dialects are rather distinct.
Each African region is home to a variety of French accents and creoles, some of which are difficult to understand. Central African French differs a lot from West African French, and so on. African countries that make up la Francophonie each have strong traditions of African-French prose, poetry and film that are as diverse as the cultures they come from. One way to master African French is to learn French in Africa.
Number of speakers: Over 100 million
Example phrase: Hujambo (Greeting)
Swahili, known as Kiswahili in the language itself, is a Bantu language widely spoken in the African Great Lakes region, which comprises a huge swath of Central, Southern and East Africa.
With Swahili under your belt, you’ll be able to communicate in gorgeous countries like Tanzania and Kenya, where it’s an official language. Swahili will also help you get around parts of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Swahili is quite appealing to many language learners both due to the fact that it’s widely spoken and to its history. Kiswahili actually means “coastal language”—it’s a trade language that was created to facilitate communication between a number of Southern and Eastern Africa’s wide variety of ethnic groups.
It’s also not too difficult for English speakers to learn. Unlike many other African languages, Swahili doesn’t involve tones and it uses the Latin alphabet. Knowing some Arabic will give you a good start, too, as there are many Arabic loanwords in Swahili.
What’s more, I guarantee you already know a handful of Swahili words. Why? The writers of Disney’s “The Lion King” had a bit of a love affair with Swahili. Hakuna Matata? That’s Swahili for “no worries!” Simba? Swahili for “lion!”
Number of speakers: 63 million
Example phrase: Sannu (Hello)
Hausa is spoken primarily in Nigeria and Niger, but it’s also spoken by plenty of other people in West Africa. In fact, Hausa serves as a lingua franca (common language) for Muslim populations in this region. It’s widely understood, so it’ll get you pretty far in West Africa!
Hausa is written in both the Arabic script and the Latin alphabet. However, the Latin alphabet, called Boko, tends to be the main script used these days among Hausa speakers.
Hausa is a tonal language, but don’t let that put you off. Each of the five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) can either have a high or low pitch, so they’re really more like 10 vowels. While these tones may be marked in learning materials that use Latin text, everyday writing does not use any diacritics, so this can be confusing.
Number of speakers: 60 million
Example phrase: Ndewo (Hello)
Another language that’s rooted in Nigeria in West Africa, Igbo has six tones, which can make it difficult to learn for non-natives. Igbo was originally written in ideograms, which were rather creative artworks that conveyed the meaning of sentences and paragraphs, but today it’s written in the Latin script with some additional letter combinations added for its unique sounds.
It’s not a widely known or studied language, but with 60 million speakers, it’s sure to come in handy for those with a strong interest in Nigeria and West Africa.
Number of speakers: 55 million
Example phrase: Bawo ni (Hello)
One of the most spoken languages in West Africa, primarily in southwestern and central Nigeria, this is a pluricentric language, which means that its speakers use a wide variety of related varieties, all of which are mutually intelligible.
Yoruba is the language used in the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé and in the Caribbean religion Santaría, which makes it a language that is being spoken in both the old and new worlds. It’s not understood by linguists how Yaruba gained usage in these religious domains, so this strange example of language transfer remains a mystery.
This is a great language to learn if you have a strong interest in West Africa and Nigeria, a rich and diverse region.
Number of speakers: Over 40 million
Example phrase: Azul (Hello)
Berber is a group of closely connected languages often referred to as the Amazigh languages, or simply Tamazight. The languages are spoken by millions in North Africa, mainly in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, Burkino Faso and the Siwa Oasis of Egypt.
The language has been struggling as Arabic and French have ousted it in some areas, but it’s hung on and now has official recognition in Morocco. Tuareg, one of the most ancient Berber languages, is still used as a lingua franca (common language) in the Sahara Desert as it has been for centuries.
The language has a relatively rare verb-subject-object (VSO) sentence structure, like Arabic and Egyptian, so the verb always comes first, which can be confusing for some learners.
This is the language to learn if you want to travel or work in North Africa, especially the remote parts.
Number of speakers: 35 million
Example phrase: Akkam (Hello)
Oromo is native to the Ethiopian state of Oromo and northern Kenya, and has been traditionally spoken by the Oromo people and ethnic groups that live close by in the Horn of Africa.
Oromo is one of the official working languages of Ethiopia. It’s written in the Latin script and Oromo speakers are known for having a highly evolved oral storytelling tradition. It’s a rather complex language, with five long and five short vowels and seven grammatical cases. Interestingly, the sounds /p/, /v/ and /z/ were not in the language historically, and are only used for recently adopted words.
Number of speakers: 30 million in Africa
Example phrase: Bom dia (Good day)
Portuguese, a remnant of colonialism on the African continent, has held on strongly through the years. It’s an official language in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Equatorial Guinea, but there are other Portuguese speaking communities all over Africa. The language is used for government and business on the continent and is one of the official languages of the African Union—Africa’s version of the U.N.
Learning Portuguese can be enormously helpful for travel and work in Africa, and of course the language also opens up Portugal and the vast area of Brazil. It also happens to be one of the U.S. Department of State’s critical languages right now.
Number of speakers: Over 22 million
Example phrase: ታዲያስ: [Tadiyas] (Hell0)
Amharic is a rich and ancient language spoken mainly in Ethiopia. It’s related to Arabic and Hebrew, and it’s the second-most widely spoken Semitic language after Arabic.
Amharic is gorgeous when spoken, and it’s even more stunning when written in its unique script. It uses an alphasyllabary called fidel—basically, each “letter” represents a consonant/vowel combination, but the forms of the consonants and vowels change depending on the combinations.
Learning to write fidel might take a little longer than learning the Arabic script, but it’s still well within reach for the average learner.
Amharic is also host to a growing body of Ethiopian literature. Poetry and novels are both popular, and learning Amharic will open the door to experiencing literature far different from that of the rest of the world. Once you have the basics down, try your hand at reading the most famous Amharic novel, “Fiqir Iske Meqabir” (Love Unto Crypt) by Haddis Alemayehu.
The Next 40 Most Spoken Languages in Africa
|Language||Example||Number of speakers||Countries spoken in|
|Fula||No mbadda? (How are you?)||25 million||Guinea, Cameroon, Nigeria, Sudan|
|Malagasy||Manao ahoana (Hello)||25 million||Madagascar|
|Somali||Wakhti dheer kuma arag (Long time no see)||20 million||Somalia, Ethiopia|
|Zulu||Ube nosuku oluhle! (Have a nice day!)||12 million||South Africa|
|Xhosa||Molo (Hi)||10 million||South Africa, Zimbabwe|
|Shona||Waita hako (Thank you)||8 million||Zimbabwe|
|Wolof||Damay diangue wolof (I am learning Wolof)||7 million||Senegal, Mauritania|
|Tigrinya||መርሓባ [merhaba] (Welcome)||10 million||Eritrea, Ethiopia|
|Kinyarwanda||Mwaramutse (Good morning)||15 million||Rwanda, Uganda, DR Congo, Tanzania|
|Afrikaans||Goeie middag/i> (Good afternoon)||8 million||South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe|
|Kikuyu||tigoi na wega (Goodbye)||7 million||Kenya|
|Chewa||Zikomo (Thank you)||2 million||Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique|
|Tswana||Dumela/i> (Hello)||6 million||Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe|
|Luganda||Tambula bulungi (Have a good journey)||20 million||Uganda|
|Sotho||Re a o lebohela (Congratulations)||6 million||South Africa|
|Mandinka||Etinyang (Good afternoon)||2 million||Guinea|
|Ewe||Eme nenyo (Good luck)||20 million||Ghana, Togo, Benin|
|Lingala||Boyei bolamu (Welcome)||20 million||DR Congo, Central African Republic, Angola, South Sudan|
|Bambara||N taara (Goodbye)||5 million||Mali|
|Kpelle||Ba nun (Hello)||2 million||Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone|
|Akan||Meda wo ase Medaase Meda wo ase pa ara Meda wo ase pii (Thank you)||11 million||Ghana, Ivory Coast|
|Serer||Nam fi'o? (How are you?)||2 million||Senegal, Gambia|
|Krio||A de go (I'm going now/See you later)||8 million||Sierra Leone|
|Kikongo||mbote (Hi)||6.5 million||DR Congo, Republic of the Congo, Angola, Gabon|
|Mossi||Ne y kena (Welcome)||8 million||Burkino Faso, Benin, Ivory Coast, Mali, Togo, Niger, Senegal|
|Nuer||Maalε (Hello, literally: is there peace?)||1 million||South Sudan, Ethiopia|
|Mende||guud bai (Goodbye)||1.5 million||Sierra Leone|
|Dinka||Kep? (How are you?)||1.5 million||Sudan, South Sudan|
|Temne||To pɛ mu-a? (How are you?)||2.5 million||Sierra Leone, Guinea, Gambia|
|Sango||Nzoni gango (Welcome)||1 million||Central African Republic, Chad, DR Congo|
|Luba-Katanga||Wakomapo (General greeting)||1.5 million||DR Congo|
|Gikuyu||wĩmwega (Hello)||6.6 million||Kenya|
|Dholuo||Ber (Hello)||4.2 million||Kenya, Tanzania|
|Soninke||An kira jamu di? (Are you having a good day?)||2.1 million||Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana|
|Gun||sunu (Man)||1.5 million||Benin, Nigeria|
|Zarma||Fo'ndakayan (Welcome)||4.3 million||Niger|
|Hadiya||Xumma gattaa! (Good morning)||1.3 million||Ethiopia|
|Tsonga||Xewani Avuxeni (Greeting)||3.7 million||Eswatini, Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe|
|Kanuri||Wushe (Hello)||8.8 million||Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan, Libya|
If you want to start learning some of the most spoken languages in Africa right away, consider signing up for FluentU. This innovative language learning program uses authentic videos—think music videos, news clips and movie trailers—with clickable subtitles to help you learn in a fun, interactive way.
Since FluentU uses only authentic videos, all you’ll hear are native speakers in context, which really helps with pronunciation.
Now that you know a little more about some major African languages, there’s no excuse to pass them up. You’ve seen how much territory they cover, and how many wonderful people you could meet by speaking them.
Many of the countries listed here have rapidly growing economies, and are increasingly important on the world stage in terms of trade and politics.
Furthermore, learning any of these languages is an opportunity to connect with a new culture and deeply experience any of the gorgeous countries in which these languages are spoken.