Which African language should you learn?

Deciding which language to learn is a major decision, as you will be investing significant time and effort into mastering your new language. South Africa is linguistically diverse, with 11 official languages although up to 25 languages are spoken in here. Of the 11 official languages, 9 languages are indigenous to Africa. If you didn’t grow up speaking any of these languages, it may be hard to decide which one to learn, so you may want to consider the following:

  • What are the most popular languages?
  • Where do you live? Some languages are dominant in certain areas.
  • Who do you work with? If you’re learning a language for work purposes, which language do most people speak? Are there enough people in your circle with whom you will be able to practice?
  • If you’re a tourist, what language do the locals speak?

So let’s take a closer look at the numbers…

Zulu is the most common home language, spoken at home by almost a quarter of South Africans. This is followed by Xhosa (17%), Afrikaans (12.1%), Sepedi (9.5%), Setswana (8.8%), English (8.3%), Sesotho (8%), Tsonga (4.2%), Swati (2.6%), Venda (2.4%), Ndebele (1.6%). Other languages, including Sign Language, Khoi, Nama and San, are spoken by only 1% of the population. (Stats SA, Community Survey 2016)




Depending on where you live, you may want to consider that:

  • KwaZulu-Natal is as its name suggest, is predominantly Zulu speaking (83%), and it is also a major language in Gauteng (23%) and Mpumalanga (29%).
  • The Eastern Cape is predominantly Xhosa speaking (83%).
  • Afrikaans dominates in the Western Cape (47%) and the Northern Cape (57%).
  • Sepedi is mostly spoken in Limpopo (56%). It is also spoken in Gauteng (12%) and Mpumalanga (9%).
  • Sesotho is spoken in the Free State (72%) and Lesotho.
  • Setswana is dominant in the North West (72%), and is also the home language spoken by 11% of people in Gauteng.
  • SiSwati is spoken by about 29% of people in Mpumalanga.
  • Tshivenda is largely spoken in certain areas of Limpopo (17%).
  • Xitsonga is spoken in Limpopo (17%), Mpumalanga (10%) and Gauteng (6%).
  • isiNdebele is spoken mostly in Mpumalanga (10%)

* StatsSA Community Survey 2016.

So you can see that your decision can be guided by where you find yourself in South Africa, and if you live in a province like Gauteng or Mpumalanga, which has a diverse language base, take into consideration which languages are spoken by the people with whom you spend a significant amount of time.