Introduction to African Languages

With anywhere between 1000 and 2000 languages, Africa is home to approximately one-third of the world's languages.

The diversity of Africa's languages is evidenced by their populations. In total, there are at least 75 languages in Africa which have more than one million speakers. The rest are spoken by populations ranging from a few hundred to several hundred thousand speakers.


Most of the languages are primarily oral with little available in written form. The languages of Africa break down into four large families (phyla), with an additional Austronesian family spoken in Madagascar; the four continental language families are:

  1. Niger-Congo
  2. Nilo-Saharan
  3. Afroasiatic
  4. Khoisan

Niger-Congo

Niger-Congo, with approximately 1,350 - 1,650 languages is the largest of the four; it is also the largest language family in the world. The Niger-Congo languages inhabit Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Africa. The most widely spoken languages of Africa, Swahili (100 million), Hausa (38 million), Yoruba (20 million), Amharic (20 million), Igbo (21 million), and Fula (13 million) all belong to the Niger-Congo family.

Learn more about the Niger-Congo language family on Ethnologue.

Afroasiatic

The next largest family is Afroasiatic with about 200 - 300 member languages in Africa The Afroasiatic languages in Africa are found mainly in the Northern regions of Africa, including: northern Nigeria, southern Niger, Somalia, and in the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, etc.

Learn more about the Afroasiatic language family on Ethnologue.

Nilo-Saharan

Next in size is the Nilo-Saharan family with about 80 languages. These occupy Eastern Africa and the North Eastern region of Africa, namely: Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Chad, the Sudan, etc.

Learn more about the Nilo-Saharan language family on Ethnologue.

Khoisan

Last but not least is the Khoisan family with between 40 - 70 members. Believed to be the oldest of the four language families, it is the smallest of the four and is found mainly in Southern Africa.

Learn more about the Khoisan language family on Ethnologue.

The population numbers given here are approximations from various population census statistics.

Languages of Africa

Africa is home to an estimated 1000 to 2000 languages spread across the continent. A map showcasing some of the major languages of Africa by country.

Discover the languages of Africa

Getting advice on choosing a language

The African Language Program offers students many channels of getting advice on choosing African languages to study.

Get advice on choosing a language