The Top Languages in Africa: A Guide to the Most Spoken African Languages

When you think of Africa, what do you think of? The iconic wildlife? The horror stories of poverty, hunger, and war? The truth is that Africa is an incredibly large, incredibly diverse and rapidly developing continent.  Whether you’re a business or an NGO, if you’re trying to maximize the number of people you can reach in Africa, you need to study the most spoken African languages in your particular market. Here’s a guide to get you started.

The most spoken African languages by number of native speakers

Because many Africans are at least bilingual, there are two possible ways to determine the most spoken African languages: by the number of native speakers or by overall numbers, including L2 speakers.

By focusing on the languages with the most L1 plus L2 speakers, you can expand the reach of your content.  However, L2 speakers vary in proficiency. And when it comes to marketing, advertising and web copy, people tend to prefer their native language. So, first of all, here are the most spoken native languages in Africa.

Arabic

Number of native speakers: 140 million in Africa, 280 million around the world
Official language in Algeria, Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, Western Sahara

Arabic didn’t originate in Africa, but today it’s the mother tongue of over 140 million Africans. As a result, it’s the most common native language on the continent overall.

Most African Arabic speakers live in North Africa, where Arabic is the majority language.  They speak local Arabic dialects, but Modern Standard Arabic is used in writing and in the media.

Written Arabic uses the Arabic script.

Berber (Amazigh)

Number of Speakers: 56M
Official language in Algeria and Morocco 

Berber, or Amazigh, is sometimes referred to as a language, sometimes as a language family. It’s a dialect continuum spoken by the Berber people in North Africa. The dialects (or languages) may or may not be mutually intelligible. Therefore, it’s important to know which variety is spoken in the region you’re targeting.

Depending on location, Berber languages are sometimes written in the Berber Latin alphabet and sometimes in the indigenous Tifinagh script.

Although Amazigh has been displaced by Arabic throughout most of the continent, it’s commonly used in Morrocco and Amazigh activists continue to fight for recognition in other North African countries.

To hear it, check out the video below:
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10 Facts About British Sign Language and BSL Interpreters

Did you know that this week is Sign Language Week? This annual observance is promoted by the British Deaf Association to celebrate British Sign language and the British Deaf Community.

To celebrate, here are ten interesting facts about British Sign Language (BSL) and BSL interpreters.

In the UK, there are around 150,000 BSL users.

70,000-87,000 of these people are Deaf and use BSL as their first language. For children who are born deaf, English is often a second or third language.

The first historical mention of BSL is a record of a wedding ceremony conducted partially in sign language in Leicester, 1576.British Sign Language in History

The groom, Thomas Tillsye, was deaf, and so, according to the Parish Book,

“the sayde Thomas, for the expression of his minde instead of words, of his own accorde used these signs…

First he embraced her with his armes, and took her by the hande, putt a ring upon her finger and layde his hande upon her harte, and held his hands towards heaven; and to show his continuance to dwell with her to his lyves ende he did it by closing of his eyes with his hands and digging out of the earthe with his foote, and pulling as though he would ring a bell with divers other signs approved.”

Thomas Braidwood established the first public school for the Deaf in Edinburgh in 1760.

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5 Powerful Lessons from “The Silent Child” About Deaf Communication in a Hearing World

Did you watch the Academy Awards last weekend? One of the most striking moments was when Rachel Shenton came to accept an Oscar for her short film “The Silent Child,” which won Best Live Action Short Film. “The Silent Child” is about a deaf girl who struggles to get by without sign language. In keeping with the subject matter, Shenton gave her acceptance speech both verbally and in BSL.

In her speech, Shenton highlighted the difficulties that deaf and hard of hearing people often face, saying “This is happening. Millions of children all over the world live in silence and face communication barriers, and particularly access to education.” The film was created to raise awareness of these challenges.

With that in mind, here are five compelling lessons from The Silent Child about deaf communication in a hearing world. Read more

Worth Reading: 7 Language and Translation Stories From February

Can you believe it’s March already? Let’s get the first weekend of the month started off right, with a look at some of the top language and translation stories from the past month. Enjoy!

Norway’s Olympic chefs learn the perils of relying on Google Translate

Here at K International, we still get clients and potential clients who ask “Why can’t we just use Google Translate?”

Norway’s Olympic team learned the hazards of this approach firsthand when they accidentally ordered  15,000 eggs instead of 1,500 from a South Korean supplier, due to a translation error.  According to the Guardian, chef Stale Johansen said his team “received half a truckload of eggs.” The chef said there was “no end to the delivery,” and called it “absolutely unbelievable.”

New Google Translate Songs From the Tonight Show


Google Translate is never perfect, but it works better in some languages than others. The Tonight Show recently did another round of “Google Translate Songs,” with Jimmy Fallon and Kelly Clarkson. They translated three songs to Mongolian and back again using the free translation service. Based on the results, I’m assuming Mongolian is not one of Google’s best languages.

“Feel It Still” by Portugal The Man became “I Live In a Boat,” and featured the lyric “Your wood, I have not picked it up yet.” “Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” turned into “I Have Your Child” and Kelly Clarkson’s song “Stronger” turned into a bunch of gibberish

Do you still think you can trust Google Translate with your business content?
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7 Cool Things You Didn’t Know About African Languages

Marvel’s long-awaited Black Panther movie came out in theaters last month. As a result, African languages and culture are getting some well-deserved attention from the rest of the world.  With that in mind, here are seven cool things about African languages you might not have known, in Black Panther and beyond.

Africa is home to approximately 1/3 of the world’s languages.

Estimates of the number of languages people speak on the African content vary from 1,500 to over 3,000. Around 100 of these are used widely, for communication between people from different tribes and groups. Meanwhile, there are at least 75 languages in Africa with over 1 million speakers.

Why does Africa have so many languages, anyway? First of all, let’s state the obvious: it’s an enormous continent, not a country. There’s long been a tendency for Europeans and Americans to treat Africa as a monolith, but it’s not.

Second, Africa is the cradle of humanity. Humankind evolved there first and then spread across the globe. That means there’s simply been more time for languages to change and for new languages to form.

African languages may also illustrate how translation and interpretation can preserve linguistic diversity.

For example, University of Chicago evolutionary linguist Salikoko Mufwene told the Christian Science Monitor, 

[I]n the case of Europe, you have to factor in the emergence of various empires, and these various empires were assimilationist and they may have driven a number of languages already to extinction . . . Traditional African kingdoms were not as assimilationist as the European empires…say the kings relied on interpreters to translate to them what was coming from territories that they ruled but where people spoke different languages, there is no particular reason why we should be surprised that there are so many languages spoken in Africa.”

Whatever the reason, this means that Africa presents a challenging linguistic landscape for businesses that wish to be understood by the local population. Read more

6 Fascinating Facts About the Korean Language

The Winter Olympics wrap up this weekend. South Korea has been in the spotlight for the past month. With that in mind, we thought it would be fitting to mark the occasion by putting the spotlight on the Korean language. Here are 6 fascinating facts about Korean, its alphabet, and its history.

Korean is the national language in South Korea, North Korea and two jurisdictions in China.

Speaking of South Korea, did you know that the South Korean economy is the 11th largest in the world by GDP? Despite tensions with North Korea, South Korea grew at its fastest rate  in seven years in the third quarter of 2017.  According to Bloomberg, it’s set expand by about 3% in 2018.

And although Korean isn’t one of the top immigrant languages in the United Kingdom, there are thriving Korean communities in London and New Malden.

Korean is a language isolate . . . almost.

If you thought Korean shared a language family with other Asian languages like Japanese or Mandarin, you would be wrong.

Most linguists classify Korean as a language isolate. In fact, it’s the largest language isolate in the world.

That said, it might have one living relative: the Jeju language, spoken in South Korea’s Jeju province.  Jeju is sometimes considered a dialect. However, it is quite distinct and not mutually intelligible with the Korean of the mainland.

The Korean language has approximately 76 million native speakers.

That makes it the 17th most spoken language in the world.

Korean has its own script,  called Hangul.

King Sejong the Great invented Hangul in the 15th century. Before then, Koreans wrote with Chinese characters, called Hanja. But these were difficult to learn without spending years in school, and that put literacy out of reach for most commoners. Read more

international mother language day

6 Multilingual Education Facts for International Mother Language Day

Did you know that February 21st was International Mother Language Day?

UNESCO declared the day a holiday in 1999, but its roots go back much deeper into the past. According to Wikipedia, International Mother Language Day started in 1952 in what is now Bangladesh. At this time in history, Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan. Most of the people in what was then called East Pakistan spoke Bangla, but in 1948, Urdu, a language spoken primarily in West Pakistan, was declared the official language for the entire country.

On February 21, 1952, Students at University of Dhaka and Dhaka Medical College protested the decision. Police fired on the protesters, killing some of the students.

Since then, East Pakistan and later Bangladesh have celebrated “Language Movement Day” on February 21. In 1999, UNESCO made it an official worldwide holiday to celebrate linguistic diversity.

The holiday is celebrated with local celebrations in many communities, and at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Every year has a different theme. The theme for 2018 is “Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education.”

This year, Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, commemorated the day with a heartfelt statement: 

“On the occasion of this Day, I launch an appeal for the potential of multilingual education to be acknowledged everywhere, in education and administrative systems, in cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade.”

Why is multilingual education so important?

In an age of globalism, what makes multilingual education so vital to sustainable development? Here are six reasons why multilingual education is essential to the success of communities around the world.  Read more

8 Fun Facts about the Chinese New Year

21 Fun Facts about the Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year falls on February 16th 2018. Each year is assigned one of 12 Zodiac signs with an associated animal. 2017 will be the Year of the Dog. The Chinese believe that each sign has associated characteristics, with people born under the dog sign believed to be very loyal. Honest, helpful, and steadfast to the point of stubbornness, Dogs are outwardly popular but often suffer from anxiety.

In addition to designating an animal for each year, the Chinese zodiac also cycles through the five elements of nature: Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, and Metal.

Expecting a new addition in 2018? Babies born this year will be Earth Dogs. According to this Chinese astrology guide,

“Earth dogs are broad-minded, faithful, considerate, well-disciplined and they stick to principles. Also, they are grateful, chivalrous, brave and have the courage to take the blame for what they do, thus it’s easy for them to offend somebody. Earth dogs always have clear goals and they are self-poised towards success and failure, never compromising their conscience to do things. They are persistent and never give up. They believe in the life philosophy of taking their own road in a down-to-earth manner. Although earth dogs are very capricious sometimes, they never hurt others arbitrarily and they respect the other’s position and attitude rather than forcing the other to accept their opinions. Earth dogs don’t like to interfere in the life of others, vice versa.

Earth dogs have the artistic spirit, so it’s not suitable for them to work in industry and commerce circles with fierce competition and internal strife. It doesn’t mean that their physical strength or fighting spirit is inferior to others, but their practice and personality cannot cater to others in this complicated society.”

Previous Dog years include 2006, 1994, 1982, 1970, 1958 and 1946. Famous “Earth Dog” celebrities include Madonna, Al Capone, Billy Idol, and Michael Jackson.

Were you born in the Year of the Dog? Watch out! According to Chinese astrology, 2018 will be unlucky for you.

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Valentine’s Day Around the World: 12 Ways Couples Show Their Love

It’s Valentine’ Day! Today, Valentine’s Day is all about cards, roses, and chocolate. But have you ever wondered why we celebrate love in the middle of February? Or how people celebrate Valentine’s Day around the world? Read on to learn more about the origin of Valentine’s Day, and how people celebrate love around the world.

Lupercalia and the Origins of Valentine’s Day

Like many holidays, Valentine’s Day has both pagan and Christian roots. In Christian tradition, it started out as the feast day of St. Valentine.  Well, one of them, anyway. There are actually three St. Valentines, and a variety of stories to explain why Valentine’s Day is “Love Day.” Some say he was an early Christian priest who secretly married Roman soldiers. Some say he was a bishop, who healed the blind daughter of his jailor and then sent her the world’s first “Valentine” before he was executed.

Regardless, 14 February falls right in the middle of Lupercalia, an ancient Roman fertility festival.  During the festival, Roman women would be gently whipped with goat hides dipped in the blood of sacrificial beasts.  This practice was supposed to make them fertile. Whatever floats your boat, right?  Then, unmarried men and women would be paired up via a matchmaking lottery for a blind date that would last for the rest of the festival or even the rest of the year.

Once the church gained power, you can see why they’d want to tame this wild holiday and turn it into a more chaste celebration of love and friendship!

Many cultures, both Western and non-Western, have special days to celebrate love and romance. Here are 16 ways Valentine’s Day (and other holidays like it) are celebrated around the world.

Valentine’s Day in Italy: St. Valentine has the key to your heart

In Padua, Italy, people traditionally gave each other small metal keys for Valentine’s Day as a symbol of love. Epilepsy was once known in northern Italy and surrounding areas as “Saint Valentine’s affliction.”  So, small children also receive St. Valentine’s keys to ward off epilepsy.  Read more

4 Cringeworthy Social Media Translation Fails 

Thanks to social media, businesses, brands, and celebrities can now easily communicate with followers all over the world. But sometimes, their posts get lost in translation. Need some examples? Here are four cringe-worthy social media translation fails.

These unfortunate incidents demonstrate why knowledgeable translation help is essential for communicating with a global audience.

Maki-san and the Cursed Sushi

social media translation fail sushiIn 2017, Singapore-based sushi chain Maki-san released a special sushi roll called the “Maki Kita”  to commemorate Singapore’s National Day. The first two words of Singapore’s national anthem are “Mari kita.” So, the product name is obviously meant to be a play on words. Unfortunately, changing that “r” to a “k” had a major impact on the meaning in Malay. “Maki kita” means “curse us.”

Can you blame the restaurant’s fans for doing just that?  The Instagram post was removed, but Mothership got screenshots. It looks like it was a rough day for whoever was managing the brand’s social media accounts.

But they really should have checked the translation. Malay is one of Singapore’s four official languages. 13% of the Singaporean population speaks it home.

Probably the best comment came from Instagram user Zaimondok, who wrote:

@rollwithmakisan this is why you need a diverse team. And in the office working on strategy not just the service staff so you can get halal certificates.

Ouch, but . . . He’s right, you know. At least about the need for a diverse marketing strategy team or some translation help. Read more