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.
Number of L1 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.
Number of L1 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:
Number of L1 speakers: 43-44M
Official language in Niger and Nigeria
Hausa is a Chadic language spoken in Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Cameroon, and Sudan. It’s also used as a trade language throughout Central and Western Africa, including Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Congo, Eritrea Ghana, Sudan, and Togo.
Hausa is written in the Latin alphabet, or sometimes in Arabic.
Learn how to introduce yourself in Hausa here:
Number of L1 Speakers: 50M
Official Language in Nigeria
Yoruba is a West African language spoken in Benin, Nigeria and also in parts of the Americas and Europe. It’s a tonal language with 3 tones and is written using the Pan-Nigerian alphabet, a variation of the Latin alphabet. Here’s what it sounds like:
Number of L1 speakers: 24.6 million
Official Language in Ethiopia
Oromo is widely spoken in the Horn of Africa, especially in Ethiopia and Kenya. It is most widely spoken native language in Ethiopia.
Oromo uses a special version of the Latin alphabet called the Qubee alphabet. You’ll hear a few words of Oromo in the next video:
Number of L1 speakers: 25M
Official Language in: Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Gambia, Guinea (Conakry), Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger.
Fulani, also known as Fula, Fulfulde, Pulaar, or Pular, is spoken by 24 million people in 20 countries in West and Central Africa. In most places, it uses the standard Fulfulde alphabet in the Latin script. However, some regions also use Arabic letters.
Curious about the Fulani language? Learn a few of the basics in the following video:
Number of L1 speakers: 22M
National Language in Ethiopia
Amharic is the most widely spoken language in the Horn of Africa. It’s been the primary language of Ethiopia since the 12 century, and it’s still the official language there today.
Amharic is written in the Ge’ez script. The following video will show what it sounds like and teach you a few basic words.
Number of L1 speakers: 24M
National Language in Equatorial Guinea
Igbo is one of the most common native languages in Nigeria. However, the only place it has official status is in Equatorial Guinea, where it’s recognised as a regional language. It’s also spoken in Cameroon.
Igbo is the native language of the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, the author of “Things Fall Apart.” It is written using the Latin script. Watch the next video for some basic Igbo greetings:
The most spoken languages in Africa, overall
When you consider second-language speakers, the picture changes quite a bit. Next, let’s look at the most widely spoken African languages overall:
As noted above, Arabic is the most common language on the continent, although it’s concentrated in North Africa.
Number of L1+L2 speakers: 100 million
Official language in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.
Swahili only has around 15 million native speakers. However, because it’s used as a lingua franca, many people in eastern and southeastern Africa choose to learn it as a second language. Swahili is written using the Latin alphabet.
The following video will teach you a few Swahili phrases.
Number of L1+ L2 speakers: 130M
Official language in Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe.
Only around 6.5M million Africans speak English as a native language. But in many countries, it’s the language used by the government and in schools. When you include people who learn it as a second language, the number of English speakers jumps to 130 million.
However, proficiency can vary. As a result, in some countries where English is an official language, less than 1% of the population can speak it.
West African Pidgin English
West African Pidgin English is a creole language with about 75 million speakers. It’s not commonly written down, but the BBC recently began broadcasting in pidgin and created a written standard. If you’re aiming for a West African audience, Pidgin might be a more effective choice than plain old standard English.
Number of L1+L2 speakers: 115M
Official language in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Chad, Guinea, Rwanda, Burundi, Benin, Togo, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Comoros, and Seychelles.
As a former colonial language, French remains the lingua franca of many of its former colonies. And French president Emmanuel Macron recently announced an initiative to promote French in Africa, alongside “maternal languages.”
Number of L1+L2 speakers: over 40 million
Yoruba also has millions of speakers amongst African emigrants around the world. As a result, it’s the most widely spoken African language outside of Africa.
Number of L1+L2 speakers: 63-64M
Hausa is commonly used in trade throughout West Africa; therefore, many people learn it as a second language.
Number of L1+L2 speakers: 30M
Official Language in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe.
Portuguese is the most widely spoken language in many former Portuguese colonies. However, in some countries where it’s an official language, people are actually more likely to speak a Portuguese creole.
Because Africa is so diverse, you need to know exactly who your target audience is if you want to reach them effectively. That’s true whether you’re trying to reach people in Africa or African immigrants in the UK and Europe.
At K International, we work with hundreds of languages daily, and we’re happy to use our expertise to help your organisation achieve its goals. Check out our language services and feel free to give us a call- we’d love to hear from you!