Africa: The Language Tree Of Many Branches

by Duke Magazine

Africa is a huge and diverse continent. It is the second largest and second most populated on Earth priding in about 2,000 spoken languages across its over 1.1 billion strong population. Many of its languages are Western derived languages, primarily from French and English, but indigenous African languages are incredibly rich and diverse. Languages spoken in Africa can be grouped into Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoisan. 

It is composed of approximately 200 languages covering nearly Northern Africa (including the horn of Africa, Central Sahara and the top Nile).

It engulfs approximately 140 languages with some 11 million speakers scattered in Central and Eastern Africa.

Niger-Saharan (Niger-Congo)
This covers the two third of Africa with a principal branch with the Niger-Congo which gathers more than 1000 languages with some 200 millions speakers. The Bantu languages of Central, Southern, and Eastern Africa form a sub-group of the Niger Congo branch.

This is composed of about 30 languages in Western part of Southern Africa.

It should however be noted that all African languages are considered official languages of the African Union 

African languages are composed of many dialects including sign languages and languages with clicks or other tones that are unique to the continent. Africa’s language make-up is complex. For example, Nigeria alone contains 250 different languages! As a rich, deep and diverse continent steep in history and huge geographical variance, it’s no surprise that Africa has developed some of the most complex languages, alphabets and scripts of any continent.

Among Africa’s massive language pool, we’ve listed the top 10 languages spoken in Africa:

English, French, Arabic, Aramaic, Swahili, Zulu, Hausa, Oromo, Yoruba, and Igbo. 

Broadly, official language-speaking countries in Africa can be divided into two; anglophone and francophone countries. 

Anglophone Countries

English is the official first language of these countries and African speakers’ English proficiency is very high. An estimate of about 23 Africa countries speak this imported language from the United Kingdom. Countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Namibia, Botswana have employed English as their official language at post independence from the British.

Francophone Countries

African French is common throughout many countries and an estimated 120 billion speak it across 24 francophone countries. Africa has the most French speakers in the world due to its former French colonization. It’s the first language in Gabon, the region of Abidjan and Ivory Coast and is taught alongside indigenous languages in many other countries. French is often the first language of the upper class within many African countries like Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.

However, this language is an official language and widely spoken in countries like Benin Republic, Togo, Niger Republic, Chad Republic, Mali, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Congo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and others.

In furtherance, there are still some medieval Africa languages that are still pervasive in our society today; Swahili and Arabic languages.

Swahili Language 

Swahili is spoken by 120 million people, but mostly as a second language. People from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda speak Swahili to varying degrees of proficiency. Swahili is still compulsory in some African schools in the Great Lakes countries of Kenya, Tanzania and the DRC.

Arabic Language 

Arabic is the second biggest language spoken in Africa. Many countries like Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan and Western Sahara speak Arabic. It is like a second language to many albeit, but about an estimate of 260 million people in Africa speak Arabic with many different dialects. Most of these countries lie in North Africa, which is the closest region to the Middle-East.

In South Africa, Zulu people are composed of 10 million speakers. Officially sanctioned as a national language by South Africa in the 90s, half of the nation understands Zulu. It uses the Latin alphabet and is also spoken in Botswana, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. Xhosa, another Bantu language like Zulu, is also commonly spoken in South Africa. It features click consonants and a Latin alphabet.

Conclusively, Africa is a tremendously diverse continent composed of many advanced language trees that span its entire landmass. Mixed in with its rich indigenous language pool, the languages spoken in Africa fuses colonial influences from the British, Belgians and French. As a result of this, Western languages are often taught as the first language in many parts of Africa.

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