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African Languages

The continent of Africa has a diverse set of languages. There are an estimated 2000 languages spoken on the continent, Nigeria alone has over 250 languages. About a hundred of these are said to be major languages - African languages for example Swahili, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba (in Nigeria due to their numbers), Shona and Ndebele in Zimbabwe, etc. European languages - as a result of colonialism in Africa - in particular French and English which are official languages in many African countries, Portuguese and Dutch/Africaans.

The choice of languages for education in Africa has been based on a number of factors, mainly:


Swahili is of Bantu (African) origin. The Bantu ("the people") migration spread through sub-Saharan Africa (Africa south of the Sahara Desert), over some 2,000 years. The Bantu, a linguistically related group of about 60 million people living in equatorial and southern Africa, are said to have originated in West Africa and migrated downward gradually into southern and east Africa. This migration is said to be one of the largest in human history.

Today, among the Bantu language groups, the most widely spoken language is Arab-influenced Swahili. It is the official language of Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya and is used as a lingua franca throughout East Africa (a language used in common by different peoples to facilitate commerce and trade) by up to 50 million speakers in parts of Tanzania, Burundi, Congo (Kinshasa) Kenya, Mayotte, Mozambique, Oman, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Uganda, UAE and the USA. The word "Swahili" used by the early Arab visitors to the coast literally means "the coast" and contains a lot of vocabulary from Arabic, Persian, Malagasy, English, German and Portuguese. It is the only African language among the official working languages of the African Union.

Today, Swahili is spoken in many countries of East Africa. In Tanzania, a deliberate effort was made after Independence, under the new president Nyerere, to promote the language and is today Tanzania's official language. Tanzania's special relations with countries in southern Africa was one of the primary reasons behind the spread of Swahili into Zambia, Malawi, South Africa, and other neighbouring countries to the south. In Kenya, it is also the national language, but official correspondence is still conducted in English. In Uganda, the national language is English but Swahili enjoys a large number of speakers especially in the military. It was declared the official language under Iddi Amin's rule of Uganda, but the declaration was never been seriously observed or repealed by the successive governments.

French (in Africa)

In 2006 there was an estimated 115 million African people spread across 31 francophone African countries speaking French either as a first or second language. The French language arrived in Africa with colonisation from France and Belgium. African French speakers are now an important part of the Francophonie. It is an official language of all United Nations agencies and a large number of international organisations

French is mainly a second language in Africa except in some areas such as in Réunion, the region of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire for example where it is the first language. In some countries it is a first language among some classes of the population, such as in Tunisia and Morocco where French is a first language among the upper classes (many people in the upper classes are simultaneous bilinguals Arabic/French), but only a second language among the general population.

In July 1994, Rwanda, whose official language had been French since independence in 1962, decreed that all laws be published in both French and English and that daily transactions take place in either. However, in reality, French is the second most spoken language in Rwanda after Kinyarwanda and is used in government and schools and spoken fluently by eight percent of RwandaÍs population as compared with only three percent for English. Cameroon has French speaking and English speaking regions, and more recently, young people have created a new language 'frananglais' which is a mixture of French, English and Creole.


Portuguese is a Romance language that originated in what is now Spain and Northern Portugal from the Latin spoken by romanised Celts about 2000 years ago. It spread worldwide in the 15th and 16th centuries as Portugal established a colonial and commercial empire (1415-1999) which spanned from Brazil in the Americas to Goa in India and Macau in China. During that time, many Creole languages based on Portuguese also appeared around the world, especially in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

Today it is one of the world's major languages - with over 200 million native speakers. It is the language with the largest number of speakers in South America (183 million, over 51% of the continent's population), and also one of the major lingua franca in Africa - Mozambique and Angola for example. It is the official language of nine countries, being co-official with Spanish and French in Equatorial Guinea, with Chinese in the Chinese special administrative region of Macau and Tetum in Timor-Leste.

From the 14th to the 16th century, with the Portuguese discoveries, the language was taken to many regions of Asia, Africa and the Americas. By the 16th century it had become a lingua franca in Asia and Africa, used not only for colonial administration and trade but also for communication between local officials and Europeans of all nationalities. Its spread was helped by mixed marriages between Portuguese and local people, and by its association with Roman Catholic missionary efforts, which led to the formation of a Creole language called Kristang in many parts of Asia. The language continued to be popular in parts of Asia until the 19th century. Some Portuguese-speaking Christian communities in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia preserved their language even after they were isolated from Portugal.

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