Languages Of South Africa

A warning sign in South Africa shown in three languages: English, Africkaans, and Zulu.
A warning sign in South Africa shown in three languages: English, Africkaans, and Zulu.

Languages Of South Africa

South Africa is a diverse nation with a population of over 55 million comprising of people different languages, origins, cultures, and religious practices. The country is also home to over 5 million immigrants, especially from the neighboring Zimbabwe. There are eleven major languages of South Africa; Afrikaans, English, Swazi, Sotho, Swan, Ndebele, Venda, Zulu, Northern Sotho, Tsonga, and Xhosa. Less than 2% of South African citizens speak a first language that is not an official language. However, most of the people can speak more than one language. South African Sign Language is also understood across the country especially when interpreters decode the message.

Popularly Spoken Native Languages

Zulu is the most widely spoken language in South Africa with about 12 million speakers representing 23% of the country’s population. The language is understood by more than half of South Africans. The other popular language is the Xhosa with 16% of the population speaking the language. Xhosa is the most widespread language in the country with the majority of the speakers living in the Eastern Cape. The distribution of Xhosa language makes it one of the popular native languages in South Africa. However, Zulu became a predominant language in the country after Apartheid. The introduction of Zulu language television that broadcasts news and other Zulu shows and newspapers have contributed significantly to the growth of Zulu. People have also switched to learning Zulu either as a first or a second language further increasing the popularity of the language.

Most Popular Foreign Languages

Afrikaans and English are the most popular foreign languages spoken in South Africa. Almost 10% of South Africans speak English as their first language especially in the provinces of Western Cape, Gauteng, and KwaZulu-Natal. English is spoken across all ethnic groups and offers a medium of interaction between the different languages and the non-citizens. English is also considered a business and educational languages and is used in most schools and institutions with international students. Afrikaans is the third most popular language in South Africa. The language was used by the South African government during Apartheid. The institutions in the country including schools used either English or Afrikaans as the official language leading to the popularity of the two foreign languages in the country. Currently, there are over 12 million speakers of these foreign languages in the country.

Languages Dying Out In South Africa

Ndebele and Tshivenda are the least spoken languages in South Africa with only 2.1% and 2.4% of the country’s population speaking these languages respectively. The two languages are among the most isolated in the country and are closely associated with the languages of the neighboring countries. Due attacks on foreigners in recent years, and the influence of major languages such as Zulu and English, Tshivenda and Ndebele are slowly dying out. Also, the communities speaking these minority languages are scattered in the outskirt provinces of South Africa.

Languages Preferred By Youth In Urban Areas

The South African urban youths, especially in Soweto, speak mainly Tsotsitaal. It is considered a “gangster” language and it has been influenced by the gangster life in the urban centers. Urban Zulu and Urban Sotho, which are the slang form of Zulu and Sotho, are also common languages spoken by the youths

Languages Of South Africa

Language NameSpeakers (As First Language)% Of Population
Northern Sotho4,618,5769.1%
Sign language234,6550.5%
Other languages828,2581.6%

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