Talking About African Languages

Article in partnership with Day Translations.

The African continent is made up of many nations, each with complex histories and with different ethnicities speaking their own language. Leaving aside colonial history and the languages spoken by the colonisers, namely English, Dutch, French, German, Spanish and Portuguese, the rich culture of language and oral traditions in African communities is worth exploring, particularly in relation to preserving such rich heritage.

Consider that it is estimated that there could be between 1,500 and 3,000 languages being spoken in the African continent, which is a huge number if we compare that to, say, the average number of languages spoken in any European countries.

Some Questions About African Languages

The topic of African languages obviously deserves more space than an article, but if we start scratching the surface, the first things that appear in searches are questions about either specific African languages or how widely spoken they are. Here are a few examples of questions about African languages.

What Is the Most Useful African Language To Learn?

The answer to the question of which African language is worth learning, presented as a first result in searches, is Swahili. Swahili is spoken across various countries from Tanzania and Rwanda to Kenya and Uganda. This means that potentially up to 150 millions of people speak Swahili on the African continent.

Swahili is a popular language that foreigners want to learn, particularly those who are travelling to Kenya, for example, because it is a sought-after destination.

Swahili draws from many traditions and languages featuring elements from Arabic and Bantu languages, as well as terms from English, German and Portuguese because of commercial relations with European countries.

Different sources have been proposing to use Swahili as a ‘lingua franca’ or common language across African countries.

What about Afrikaans? Afrikaans has been defined as the “youngest language in the Commonwealth” in a 1936 Oxford lecture, because it was developed by Dutch speakers in the Cape area during the 1600s. Currently Afrikaans is spoken by over 8 million people.

What African Languages Does Google Translate Support?

Back in 2013, Google Translate opened its doors to test an initial set of African languages: Hausa, Igbo, Somali, Yoruba and Zulu. Up until then, there was no available automated service to translate any African languages to English and vice versa.

From 2018, Google Translate started supporting Arabic, Swahili and Afrikaans, with more languages being added in 2023 totalling 12, namely, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Sesotho, Xhosa, Zulu and Shona.

Using Indigenous Languages for Official Communications

Countries such as Ethiopia and Somalia have been using their own indigenous languages for many years in their respective parliaments. However, using local languages can be extremely complicated especially when different ethnicities speak their own language and dialect.

Many African countries decided to adopt European languages (English, French, German, Spanish and Portuguese) for official communications to streamline work as it would be too cumbersome to make various documents and speeches available in multiple languages. Unfortunately, by doing so, these countries are risking that indigenous languages may become extinct if not enough people speak them and continue teaching them to new generations.

The topic of indigenous African languages is extremely complex and it requires the intervention of governments, cultural institutions, schools, groups and individuals. Each language is embedded in the history of its group so losing a language also means losing a rich cultural background and a legacy forever.

There are so many social and economic factors at play that add to an already complex issue: one of the most pressing among many rural African communities is migration, which impacts the passing on of knowledge of native languages. As the elder members of rural areas stay behind while their offspring move to cities or to other countries, the language they speak doesn’t have a chance to develop further and stay relevant. This is not a problem that is exclusive to African countries, as other nations, particularly island nations, are facing the same issue.

It seems that a multi-faceted approach including government support, education, business investment and community engagement is the best solution to preserve indigenous languages and encourage new generations to embrace them and carry them forward to keep the vibrancy of their cultural heritage.