Lost in Translation: African Languages Explained

Lost in Translation: African Languages Explained

Africa is a continent with 54 countries that speak a variety of languages, some of which are threatened because of the development of other major groups and the impact of Western culture.

When it comes to government and industry, the West Germanic language, Afrikaans, also called Cape Dutch and English are the most widely used languages in South Africa 

Some other African languages which aren’t quite common or popular are on the verge of extinction. And with the death of these languages, the philosophy and history  hidden in them face death as well.

The importance of heritage has come into the limelight of Africans in the post-colonial era. However, despite the widespread use of African languages in entertainment, tourism and teaching, only a bite-size is recognized officially at the national level.

African Languages Explained

Africa has about 2,000 unique languages, which is about a third of all languages in the world. When compared with other continents, Europe has only about 300 languages which is about 85% less than Africa.

You might wonder why a continent with just 54 countries has over 2000 languages with different dialects and the simple reason for this is time as well as cultural and political factors.

Africans have had more time to create languages than people in other parts of the world and culture as well as politics has played huge roles in the development of these languages.

The continent also contains a diverse sign languages in addition to spoken languages. Many of these sign languages, like the spoken languages, are unique to certain places.

Though ArabicBerberAmharicIgboSwahiliHausa, Yoruba and a few others seem to be the most popular of all African languages, spoken by tens of millions of people; all the languages of Africa are divided into several language families namely:

  •          Afroasiatic languages 
  •          Niger-Congo
  •          Indo-European languages 
  •          Khoe–Kwadi languages 
  •          Austronesian languages 

And several other small families and languages that are yet to be classified.

Divisions of African Languages

Africa as a whole is extremely momentous when it comes to linguistics and it provides very intriguing opportunities to study language evolution.

 The languages in Africa can be divided into four main families which are as follows:

  • Niger-Congo
  • Nilo Saharan
  • Afroasiatic
  • Khoisan

 There is also the Austronesian family which is spoken in Madagascar.


Of these four families, Niger-Congo is the largest. With about 1300 to 1600 languages; it is also the world’s largest language family. The languages are spoken in Eastern, Central, Western, and Southern Africa. The Niger-Congo family includes the most commonly spoken African languages like Swahili with about 100 million speakers, Igbo, Yoruba and Fula with 21, 20 and 13 million speakers respectively.


The second biggest family is the Afroasiatic which has about 200 – 300 member languages in Africa. The languages are mostly found in the northern part of the continent in countries such as Eritrea, northern Nigeria, Somalia, southern Niger, Ethiopia and the North African nations of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia etc.


After the Afroasiatic family comes the Nilo-Saharan family with over 80 languages. The countries are located in Eastern Africa and the Northern Eastern Area of Africa namely Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Chad, Sudan etc.


The Khoisan family, which is thought to be the earliest of the four language groups has between 40 and 70 individuals. It is the smallest of the four language families and is found mostly in Southern Africa


One thing to note about African languages is that due to its ambiguity there are challenges that are faced in translation such as the need for paraphrasing and mismatching.

For example, in the Swahili language, the word ‘Bibi’ can mean Grandmother, Boss or Wife; ‘Mchanga’ can mean soil or young.

When dealing with translation, it’s always very necessary to have native speakers of these languages who can tell these different homonyms apart. A case of wrong translation could lead to miscommunication and embarrassment. 

Get your native translators at iVoiceAfrica, a company tested and trusted with several jobs across the African continent. Contact us on +234 7026276411 or send an email to info@ivoiceafrica.com






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