The 5 Most Multilingual & Diverse Countries in Africa

December 9, 2021

Africa is predominantly known for its incredible geographical diversity—from sandy deserts to lush rainforests.

But did you know that Africa is just as diverse from a linguistic perspective as well?

Being one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world, Africa now has up to 2,000 distinct languages— possibly even more. Not only that, but almost all African countries are multilingual.

In fact, 20 out of 25 of the topmost linguistically diverse countries are African countries.

Surprisingly, this linguistic diversity has tremendous positive implications for expanding businesses and Africa’s economy in general. Indeed, researchers have positively linked economic growth to multilingualism.

The challenge, of course, is overcoming these vast language barriers. This is why many new expanding businesses will engage with translation services for the African market.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most multilingual and diverse countries in Africa.



1. Nigeria

The Nigerian population speaks around 526 distinct native languages. Unsurprisingly, English is the official language of this former British colony, with over 184 million total speakers.

As a result, most official and business interactions are carried out in English. Since English is such a widely-spoken language globally, business expansions into Nigeria are exceptionally easy in terms of language barriers.

Outside a business context, though, other native languages are most commonly spoken.
These include:

• Hausa (49 million)
• Yoruba (42 million)
• Igbo (30 million)
• Fulfulde (15 million)
• Efik-Ibibio (10 million)
• Kanuri (8 million)
• Tiv (15 million)
• Gbagyi (5 million)
• Nupe (4 million)

So, while you can easily launch your business expansion into Nigeria, English fluency alone is not going to cut it. Instead, you need to enlist the help of a professional translation service for the African market to help you reach your target audience more discreetly.


2. Cameroon

Nigeria’s eastern neighbour, Cameroon, makes the cut for the top 10 most multilingual countries in the world. According to Ethnologue, the country is home to 275 languages. However, some accounts claim that there are actually up to 600 spoken languages in the region.

Unfortunately, most native languages are no longer prevalent due to the country’s colonial history. In fact, there is little to no availability of television programming, radio, and literature in any indigenous Cameroonian languages.

French and English are the two official languages of Cameroon, with 83% of the population speaking the former. In contrast, the number of English speakers is slowly declining.

Notably, the portion of the population who speak English speak it in a vernacular version called Cameroonian Pidgin English. Hence, your business will benefit from employing translation services to work around the local dialect for the African market.

Interestingly, German was also once an official language of Cameroon. While the language no longer holds an official status, Cameroon still remains Africa’s most German-knowledgeable country.


3. Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe holds the accolade of having the third-highest number of official languages globally. The 16 official languages of Zimbabwe include Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Khoisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zimbabwean and American Sign Language.

While English is mainly spoken for business and government, people don’t commonly use it in their day-to-day interactions. Instead, 70% of the Zimbabwean population communicates in Shona, while roughly 20% speak Ndebele.

Apart from these native official languages, some other languages from immigration have also flooded the mainstream language systems. These include Hindi, Chinese, Dutch, French, Gujarati, and German.


4. South Africa

South Africa is the third-largest economy of the continent, with leading industrial, technological, and economic advancements. It is one of the only eight upper-middle-income economies in the continent.

There are at least 35 languages indigenous to South Africa, out of which 10 are official languages of the Republic. The 11th non-native official language is English, which is primarily spoken in parliamentary contexts.

Unsurprisingly, an average South African speaks at least two languages- typically one official and one unofficial native language.

Notably, the Constitution of South Africa grants equal legal status to all official languages. Moreover, the Constitution takes positive measures to protect and elevate the status of marginalised native languages, such as:

• Khoekhoegowab
• !Orakobab
• Xirikobab
• N|uuki
• !Xunthali
• Khwedam


5. Chad

Chad makes the list of the topmost multilingual countries in the world, with well over 120 spoken languages.

The two official languages of Chad are French and Modern Standard Arabic. French is primarily spoken in major cities and is the standard medium of instruction in schools. Arabic, on the other hand, is typically the language of commerce.

However, 50-60% of the total population speaks a local style of Arabic known as Chadian Arabic. The language with the highest number of native speakers, though, is Ngambay.

Hence, unofficial native languages are much more common than their official counterparts.

Since Chad is Africa’s fifth-largest country with an ever-growing working population, business expansion into this demographic powerhouse will be fruitful.

However, the sheer linguistic diversity and preference of indigenous languages require you to secure an African translation agency to access the labour force effectively.


How Africa’s Language Diversity Helps its Economy

By now, it’s no secret that Africa is a linguistic powerhouse. But how does its linguistic diversity positively affect its economy?

More importantly, what implications does Africa’s multilingualism have as you expand your business for the African market?

Well, think about it: when dealing with international economies, isn’t it much easier to enhance trading relations with countries with which you share a common tongue? The same reasoning extends to business expansion. Here are some other factors to consider:

• The African working population is bound to share at least one common language with you. This allows you to access this boundless labour force for your business.
• Similarly, you can more easily reach and appeal to your consumer base if there is less language barrier.
• Native dialects and vernacular languages will always produce a language barrier. In this case, translation services for the African market will help you work around linguistic and cultural nuances.

Many African countries are multilingual, with their inhabitants speaking at least two languages. But although many African economies have English, French, or even both as their official languages, a large portion of the African population do not speak these languages.

Businesses can easily avoid the complications of any potential language barriers when expanding into an entirely new market, only with the help of the right African translation service.