African Languages in a time of globalization

In Africa, there is a large number of languages, about 2,000, practically 30% of the languages spoken in the world. African languages have been classified in various ways. A generally accepted classification defines four main groups of interrelated languages.

Afro-Asian. This group covers about 200 languages, with some 175 million speakers and occupies most of Northern Africa, except the Sahara and the central areas of the Upper Nile, and the Horn of Africa. To this group belong Semitic languages, including Arabic and the old Egyptian. The group spreads to the south approximately to Lake Chad. Known members of this group are the Arabs in the north (more than 100 million speakers), the Hausa in the West, the Somali and Amhara in East Africa.

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Niger-kordofano. This large group covers most of southern Africa, except a large area in the southwest. The main branch is the Niger-Congo, which contains more than 1,000 languages, with 200 million speakers. The Bantu languages of Central Africa, East and South are a sub-group of the Niger-Congo branch. There are about 500 Bantu languages which are spoken by more than 100 million speakers. Among the Bantu languages, Kiswahili is known in East Africa while Shona, Xhosa and Zulu are prevalent in South Africa. The Kordofan branch includes approximately 30 languages, with 300,000 speakers in the Sudan.

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Nilo-Saharan. This group of 140 languages with 11 million speakers, is scattered far and wide in areas of Central and Eastern Africa. Nilo-Saharan speakers are surrounded by both Afro-Asiatic and Bantu languages. In eastern Africa, Maasai and Nubians are members of this group.

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Khoisan. This group of about 30 languages, with more than 100,000 speakers, is located in a vast area of south-western Africa. In origin, Khoisan languages were spoken throughout southern Africa. The expansion of the Bantu people, however, led to the shrinking of their area. Two related languages are spoken in northern Tanzania. Today, many of the Khoisan languages are spoken in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Angola. A famous feature of the Khoisan languages is their use of ‘cliks’. These sounds have been borrowed by neighbouring languages like Xhosa.


The heritage of Africa is one of the richest in the world. According to UNESCO, between 500 and 600 languages spoken in the continent are endangered, including 250 already almost extinct. Most of these are found in Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, South Sudan, Nigeria and northern Cameroon. Extinction danger is monitored by counting children who stopped learning their maternal language. When this group reaches 10 to 30% of all speakers, the language is potentially in danger. When the youngest fluent speakers are middle-aged persons, the language is seriously endangered. When only a handful of speakers, most of whom are elderly, remains, the language is considered to be dying. However, it is worth noting that languages that were considered extinct have, at times, found unexpected revival.

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Some NGOs have been working hard to support the survival of endangered languages. Nacala works with adults in Cameroon organizing literacy activities in their mother tongue. PROPELCA (Operational program for research for the teaching of Cameroonian languages) helps children. Saving local languages is important. Many studies have shown that literacy in one’s native language allows for a better academic achievement and a better acquisition of second languages. Indeed, it does not make sense that primary school children learn to read and write in a language – usually French or English – that they do not speak and do not understand. This, however, it what often happens in Africa.
In general, Africans are bilingual or multilingual. This requires the ability to learn and use two or more sets of grammar and vocabulary. In turn, multi-lingual competence helps develop the ability to remember more accurately and more quickly than people who manage only one language. Since endangered languages are usually spoken by people who also know the official or prevalent language of the area, it makes sense to support minority languages. Retaining one’s mother tongue helps minorities identify with their ethnic distinctiveness.(N.F.Y)


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