Getting Your Head Around Language in Africa

If you follow news and social media, you will probably be noticing more interest in Africa. “Business in Africa”, “invest in Africa”, “growth in Africa” are but a few of the daily headlines we all see.

Exporting to Africa is now a real possibility with real ROI. Check out the current 10 best places to do business in Africa for brief intro to some of the current emerging economies.

However, if you are thinking about making some steps in this direction you have to remember it’s BIG place and to approach it as one, uniform geography it careless at best.

Nothing illustrates the complexity of the continent more than its language diversity. There are literally thousands of languages still being spoken today on the continent. If anything can demonstrate how you need to approach Africa, it’s the languages.

Some of the languages spoken in Africa will of course be extremely familiar to those from outside the continent. Many countries still speak and use the languages of former colonila masters, especially English, French and Portuguese.


French is spoken throughout what is known as Francophile Africa including Mali, Senegal and Cameroon, but don’t think that using those French skills you learned at school will always help you.

There are many differences in the French spoken in North and West Africa. There are differences in pronunciation between varieties of African French, if you go to Morocco and then to Senegal you’ll notice significant differences in pronunciation. The local pronunciation of French is influenced by the African languages spoken locally. There are even words in African French that don’t exist in standard French due to local influence. Some words have different meanings, for example presentment means ‘at the moment’ but in sub-Saharan Africa means ‘as a matter of fact’ or ‘as it were’. Well educated Africans tend to speak a form of French that is much more formal.


English is still spoken by around 60 million Africans with the most native English speakers being in Nigeria and South Africa. Other notable countries which use English include Ghana, Kenya, The Gambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. It’s not always easy to understand though because they tend to use Creole or pidgin versions of the language.


The most widely spoken language in Africa is Arabic used by over 150 million Africans. Again, there are many variations of the language used with several dialects. Use Moroccan Arabic to an Arabic Speaker from Libya and there will definitely be some communication problems. However, in its written form, Arabic is standard and is the language used in newspapers and print.


Swahili is spoken by over 100 milllion Africans especially in Southeast Africa and the African Great Lakes region. This ancient language is thriving in the 21st century and is being spoken and taught in many other parts of the world too. In fact, Swahili is tipped by some to be one of the power languages of the future.

Other widely spoken languages that may not be familiar are Amharic and Hausa. The latter is spoken by over 70 million Africans mainly in Niger and the north of Nigeria. This is an important language to take note of as it’s used as a trade language across a wide part of West Africa, Central Africa and Northwestern Sudan; it’s even been rendered in Braille. Amharic is a Semitic language used in fast-developing Ethiopia where it’s the official working language.

That’s just some of the many languages that are used in Africa. If your company is considering doing business within an African country then it’s important to find out more about their language needs and requirements.

Language is so important when dealing with other countries. It’s a major part of the process of getting your message across and enjoying success. Make sure you find out as much as you can about the area and the languages they use, the hard work really will be worth it.

Countries: Africa
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