As the second largest continent in the world, Africa is surpassed in terms of size and population only by Asia. It encompasses several countries with multiple languages and even a number of islands of varying sizes – some being humongous enough to be bigger than many countries while others are so tiny, they would make no more than a dot on the map. This breathtaking continent called Africa is indeed bustling with billions of inhabitants, countless resources and pristine nature.
With so many people and cultures, this lush continent had no shortage of languages. At present, Africa offers thousands of languages including the indigenous and colonial. It is what you might consider a language enthusiasts’ paradise.
Choosing which of these dialects is most popular is made difficult by three major factors. First, a language may be popular but those who know and speak the language do so with different levels of fluency. Second, languages often have dialect continuum, which means speakers of the same language from different parts may find it harder to properly comprehend each other. Lastly, it is relatively challenging to get accurate statistical numbers of language speakers. As such, these numbers are often simply estimated or faked.
That said, let’s consider the 5 of the most popular languages in Africa.
A notably popular language in Africa with several creoles, Arabic has more than 100 million native speakers and is the second language to about 30 million people. Historically, Arabic is said to have been introduced to the African people as a language used by merchants who traded through ancient trade routes. Today, numerous counties in Africa have Arabic as the official language. Some of these countries are Algeria, Comoros, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, and Tunisia.
Well known and recognized globally, Swahili is said to have between 100 and 150 million speakers. This includes both native speakers and second language users. Otherwise known as Kiswahili (‘kiswɑˈhili) and recognized as a ‘Bantu’ language, Swahili has its roots in Arabic and even had an Arabic script during its early years.
Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Kenya have established Swahili as the official language of their countries. Other countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, southern Somalia, northern Mozambique and the Comoros Islands also use Swahili as their second language. Interestingly, not only Africans speak Swahili. There are numerous speakers of the language in countries like Saudi Arabia and the United States of America. The beautiful language is often taught in schools and universities, and is a popular choice for many language enthusiasts.
Africa got its first taste of this language during the colonial rule. At present, it has developed into one of the most popular languages with over 100 million speakers and several African countries establishing it as their official language. The popularity of this language on the African continent is such that four of the top five countries in the world with the highest French-speaking population are in Africa.
However, the French spoken in Africa varies from that spoken in parts of France or Europe creating what is referred to as ‘African French’. The influence of local languages has led to the development of many creoles of French, two of which are used by the island nations of Seychelles and Mauritius.
Hausa is one language that is well appreciated in Africa. It has well over 45 million speakers and is spoken majorly by countries in the Western and Central regions of Africa. A large number of the speakers of Hausa are in countries such as Niger, Ghana, or Nigeria.
Hausa is an advanced language – one of the most advanced in Africa, in fact – and it incorporates both the Boko and Latin alphabet. The language is also tonal, which implies that the meaning of words can be altered by the speaker’s voice pitch. This makes it one very interesting language to learn.
More than 45 million Africans enjoy the delight of speaking the Igbo language. The language is native to Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, and is characterized as a Niger-Congo language. Believed to have originated as far back as in 9th century AD, Igbo is considered one of the oldest languages in West Africa. Igbo is also one of the three official languages in Nigeria. The other two are Hausa and Yoruba.
Just like Hausa and Yoruba, another of the more complex African languages with over 40 million speakers, Igbo is a tonal language. Despite it being an old language, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that there was an adoption of a spelling system to incorporate the tonal changes into the writing system as well. Igbo has over 20 individual dialects including Owerri, Eche and of course, Central Igbo.
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