Africa on a map

The Top 50 Languages Spoken in Africa

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 travelersprofessionals 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

1. Arabic

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.

2. French

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.

3. Swahili

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!”

4. Hausa

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.

5. Igbo

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.

6. Yoruba

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.

7. Berber

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.

8. Oromo

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.

9. Portuguese

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.

10. Amharic

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

LanguageExampleNumber of speakersCountries spoken in
FulaNo mbadda? (How are you?)25 millionGuinea, Cameroon, Nigeria, Sudan
MalagasyManao ahoana (Hello)25 millionMadagascar
SomaliWakhti dheer kuma arag (Long time no see)20 millionSomalia, Ethiopia
ZuluUbe nosuku oluhle! (Have a nice day!)12 millionSouth Africa
XhosaMolo (Hi)10 millionSouth Africa, Zimbabwe
ShonaWaita hako (Thank you)8 millionZimbabwe
WolofDamay diangue wolof (I am learning Wolof)7 millionSenegal, Mauritania
Tigrinyaመርሓባ [merhaba] (Welcome)10 millionEritrea, Ethiopia
Mwaramutse (Good morning)15 millionRwanda, Uganda, DR Congo, Tanzania
AfrikaansGoeie middag/i> (Good afternoon)8 millionSouth Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe
tigoi na wega (Goodbye)7 millionKenya
ChewaZikomo (Thank you)2 millionMalawi, Zambia, Mozambique
TswanaDumela/i> (Hello)6 millionBotswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe
LugandaTambula bulungi (Have a good journey)20 millionUganda
Re a o lebohela (Congratulations)6 millionSouth Africa
Etinyang (Good afternoon)2 millionGuinea
EweEme nenyo (Good luck)20 millionGhana, Togo, Benin
LingalaBoyei bolamu (Welcome)20 millionDR Congo, Central African Republic, Angola, South Sudan
BambaraN taara (Goodbye)5 millionMali
KpelleBa nun (Hello)2 millionGuinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone
AkanMeda wo ase Medaase Meda wo ase pa ara Meda wo ase pii (Thank you)11 millionGhana, Ivory Coast
SererNam fi'o? (How are you?)2 millionSenegal, Gambia
KrioA de go (I'm going now/See you later)8 millionSierra Leone
mbote (Hi)6.5 millionDR Congo, Republic of the Congo, Angola, Gabon
MossiNe y kena (Welcome)8 millionBurkino Faso, Benin, Ivory Coast, Mali, Togo, Niger, Senegal
NuerMaalε (Hello, literally: is there peace?)1 millionSouth Sudan, Ethiopia
Mendeguud bai (Goodbye)1.5 millionSierra Leone
Kep? (How are you?)1.5 millionSudan, South Sudan
TemneTo pɛ mu-a? (How are you?)2.5 millionSierra Leone, Guinea, Gambia
SangoNzoni gango (Welcome)1 millionCentral African Republic, Chad, DR Congo
Wakomapo (General greeting)1.5 millionDR Congo
Gikuyuwĩmwega (Hello)6.6 millionKenya
Ber (Hello)4.2 millionKenya, Tanzania
SoninkeAn kira jamu di? (Are you having a good day?)2.1 millionMali, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana
sunu (Man)1.5 millionBenin, Nigeria
ZarmaFo'ndakayan (Welcome)4.3 millionNiger
HadiyaXumma gattaa! (Good morning)1.3 millionEthiopia
TsongaXewani Avuxeni (Greeting)3.7 millionEswatini, Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe
KanuriWushe (Hello)8.8 millionNigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan, Libya

If you want to start learning some of the most spoken languages in Africa right away, you can try a language program such as FluentU. You’ll hear native speakers in context, which really helps with pronunciation.

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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.

And One More Thing...

If you dig the idea of learning on your own time from the comfort of your smart device with real-life authentic language content, you'll love using FluentU.

With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:

FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.

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You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU's "learn mode." Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

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Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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