It is estimated that there may be over 3,000 languages spoken in Africa. Not only is Africa the second most populous continent in the world with over one billion people, but it is also home to the highest linguistic diversity in the world, with over 1500 different languages. Below are top 5 African languages to know when doing business on the continent or enjoying tourist destinations and experiencing diverse cultures on the continent.
Swahili is the most spoken language in Africa, with over 100 million speakers. It is a Bantu language believed to have originated from other languages, mainly Arabic, due to historical interactions between Arabs from the Middle East and East Africans. Swahili is Tanzania’s official language, as well as the medium of instruction in all schools. It is also Kenya’s official language as well as Uganda. Other Swahili speaking nations include Rwanda, Burundi, southern Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan northern Mozambique and the Comoros Islands. To greet in Swahili, one says, “Jambo”, or “Habari” when greeting an elder.
Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia with over 21 million speakers. It is the second most spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic, and is also the language of over 2 million Ethiopians living outside of the country. The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family originating from the Middle East. It is related to Arabic and Hebrew, and with 22 million native speakers it’s the second most widely spoken Semitic language after Arabic.
Yoruba is one of West Africa’s most spoken languages, accounting for over 30 million speakers in Nigeria, Benin and Togo, and it is one of Nigeria’s official languages. It is also widely spoken by West African expats in the US and UK. It is the mother tongue of the Yoruba people in Nigeria, and has over fifteen dialects including Awori, Ijesha, Ilaje and Ila. It is a tonal language with three tones: high, mid and low, and forms part of the Volta-Niger branch of the Niger-Congo family of languages. To say hello in Yoruba, one says “Bawo”.
Oromo is spoken by over 30 million people in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Egypt. The Oromo people account for more than 40% of the Ethiopian population, and are the largest ethnic group in the country. The writing of the language was forbidden between 1974 and 1991 under the Mengistu regime, even though limited usage of the Ge’ez script was allowed. After 1991, the language adopted the Latin alphabet. It falls under the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. To say hello in Oromo, one says “Akkam”.
Hausa is one of Nigeria’s official languages, and one of the most spoken Chadic languages on the continent, with over 40 million native and second language speakers. It originated as the language of the Hausa people in northern Nigeria and southern Niger, and soon spread as the lingua franca of western Africa due to trade. It is spoken mainly in northern Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Congo, Eritrea, Germany, Ghana, Sudan, Togo and much of North Africa. It uses the Boko and Latin alphabet as its writing system, and is also the basic language for most Muslim populations in western Africa. To say hello in Hausa, one says “Sannu”.