The enormous economic potential that emerging African markets represent for investors is often overlooked. The African economy in 2021 was around $2.7 trillion in nominal terms — $296 billion more than 2020 — calculated by taking figures from the IMF. This is $246b less than France’s GDP, the 7th largest economy in the world. Further, using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a yardstick, a February article in Business Insider Africa listed the 10 largest African economies to invest in as of 2022. Those economies come with their own array of important African languages.
Roughly 30% of the world’s languages are spoken in Africa. The continent has an estimated 2,000 languages from over 3,000 tribes and 55 countries. Although all the languages are important and beautiful, their popularity varies. For the present, let’s focus on those African languages widely spoken in the top-10 investment prospects.
There are over 500 languages spoken in Nigeria, one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. Although the official language is English, the most important languages spoken at home are Hausa (30.9%), Yoruba (17.4%), and Igbo (9.5%).
Hausa, an Afroasiatic language, is spoken by around 30 million people as a native language in West Africa and an additional 20 million as a second. As the Hausa population is so large in the region, it is often considered the lingua franca of West Africa and is written in Arabic script, although in recent years it has also been written increasingly with Latin script. Although there are many dialects, only two — Dauranchi and Kannci — are recognized as official dialects.
Yoruba is of the Niger-Congo family, and it too drew in a lot of Arabic influence and loan words. It is the indigenous language of the Yoruba people and spoken natively by about 19 million people in Nigeria, as well as many of the Yoruba in Benin. As many as 30 million people speak Yoruba as their native language.
In addition to being a common language in Nigeria, it is also spoken by many in the Caribbean who are of West African descent. Yoruba is the primary liturgical religion of the Santeria religion.
The third-most important language of Nigeria is Igbo, which is also from the Niger-Congo language family. It has as many as 24 million native speakers, and was popularized in the novel Things Fall Apart, which features an Igbo tribe.
There are over 20 dialects of Igbo, but Umuahia and Owerri are the official dialects.
According to Ethnologue, there are 16 individual living languages spoken in Egypt. Egypt’s official language, however, is Modern Standard Arabic, which is used in education and written documents.
Modern Standard Arabic primarily describes the literary form of Arabic, which is actually a macrolanguage composed of multiple distinct vernacular dialects. In other words, it’s the written standard for a group of similar dialects that are, for the most part, mutually intelligible.
Modern Standard Arabic came from Classical (medieval) Arabic, and it has a grammar and syntax that’s remained largely fixed since the 7th century. However, some elements of its style and phrasing have shifted over time, in some part thanks to English and French influence.
- South Africa
South Africa’s Constitution recognizes 11 official languages of which Zulu and Xhosa are the 2 largest, followed by Afrikaans. Only one in 10 people speak English at home.
Zulu, a Southern Bantu language of the Nguni branch, is spoken as a first language by roughly 12 million people and another 15 million as a second language. It is the language of the Zulu people, who primarily inhabit the province of KwaZulu-Natal of South Africa.
Xhosa is a Nguni language and also an official language of Zimbabwe. Xhosa is spoken as a first language by approximately 8.2 million people and by another 11 million as a second language in South Africa, mostly in Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng and Northern Cape.
Although Xhosa and Zulu are similar enough to be considered dialects of one language, Xhosa and Zulu speakers consider them to be separate languages. The sound system of Xhosa contains three types of click sounds borrowed from the neighboring Khoisan languages
Afrikaans is derived from the form of Dutch brought to the Cape by Protestant settlers in the 17th century. Together with English, it is the only Indo-European language in South Africa. Although Afrikaans is very similar to Dutch, it is clearly a separate language, differing from Standard Dutch in its sound system and its loss of case and gender distinctions.
Since 1963 the official language of Algeria is Arabic. The Arabic spoken in Algeria has been greatly influence by French, Turkish and Berber. In 2016, Tamazight (Berber) was added to the constitution as a second official language.
Roughly 27% of the 40 million Algerians speak Berber at home. The Berber languages are considered the native language of Algeria since antiquity. They are spoken in five major dialects in many parts of the territory, but mainly in Kabylia, the Awras, and the Algerian Sahara desert (by Algerian Tuaregs).
In Morocco, there are two official languages: Arabic and Standard Moroccon Berber. Moroccan Arabic (known as Darija) is the spoken native vernacular. There are 6 million Berber speakers in Morocco (26% of the population). Until the year 2000, the Berber languages in Morocco had been neglected and ignored. The Charter for Educational Reform, however, recognized them, and in recent years the Berber culture has been gaining strength. (Berber is the generic name for the Berber languages. The term Berber is not used nor known by the speakers of these languages).
According to Ethnologue, there are a total of 68 languages spoken in Kenya. The country, however, has also two official languages: English inherited from colonial rule and Swahili.
Swahili is spoken not only in Kenya but also in Tanzania, Uganda, and Congo, where Swahili is one of the four languages of the administration. It’s also spoken by smaller numbers in Burundi, Rwanda, Northern Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique. As one of the official languages of the African Union (AU), Swahili is “among the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world, with more than 200 million speakers.” Swahili has been greatly influenced by Arabic; there are an enormous number of Arabic loanwords in the language, including the word swahili from Arabic sawāḥilī (a plural adjectival form of an Arabic word meaning “of the coast”).
Under the Ethiopian constitution, all Ethiopian languages enjoy official state recognition. However, Amharic is the “working language” of the federal government. Together with the Oromo, it is one of the two most widely spoken languages in the country.
Nearly 22 million people speak Amharic as their first language. Another 4 million second-language speakers can be found within the country and a further 3 million around the world.
Over 35 million people speak Oromo in Ethiopia. The language is part of the Afroasiatic family that belongs to the Cushitic branch. It is native to the Ethiopian state of Oromia and spoken predominantly by the Oromo people and neighboring ethnic groups in the Horn of Africa. This Cushitic ethnic group represent 34.5% of Ethiopia’s population. Oromo is also spoken by minorities in Kenya and Somalia.
Over 70 languages are spoken in Ghana. English is the official language. By far the most common and widely spoken language is Akan.
Around 9 million people speak this language, which comprises Fante, Asante Twi, and Akuapem Twi. These languages are mutually intelligible. The Akan language is part of the Kwa-branch of languages that we believe to have originated from Niger-Congo. It is spoken by over 40% of Ghanaians and in regions in the Ivory Coast. Akan speakers are found in Ashanti Region mainly (native speakers) and across the country.
- Ivory Coast
Although the official language of the republic is French, local indigenous languages that are also widely being used include Baoulé, Dioula, Dan, Anyin, and Cebaara Senufo. In total, there are around 78 different languages spoken in Ivory Coast.
Portuguese remains the official language of Angola, inherited from colonial times. The other languages most spoken in Angola are Umbundu, Kimbundu, and Kikongo.