What Languages Are Spoken in Zambia?

Then flag of Zambia.
Then flag of Zambia.

The Official Language of Zambia

Zambia is located in the central region of southern Africa and has a population size of slightly more than 16.21 million. The area has been inhabited since prehistoric times by a number of indigenous tribes. The country came under British rule during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, earning its independence as recently as 1964. During its time as a British colony, English became the official language of the country, used in government, business, and education.

English continues to be the official language of Zambia today. However, use of the English language in this country is unique, as it is influenced by the local accent, grammatical changes (particularly with phrasal verbs and object pronouns), and the inclusion of words from local languages. The English spoken in this country is often referred to as Zambian English.

Regional Languages of Zambia

In addition to the English language, the government of Zambia also recognizes 7 official regional languages. These regional languages include: Bemba, Nyanja, Tonga, Lozi, Lunda, Kaonde, and Luvale. As regional languages, they are taught in the public school system at the primary level, depending on the region. Additionally, the government makes some public announcements in official regional languages.

Of these languages, Bemba is the most widely spoken. It is used and understood as either a first or second language by 52% of the population, according to the census of 2000. It belongs to the Niger Congo language family, is considered a Bantu language, and is used by the Bemba people. It is primarily concentrated in the northeastern areas and is most commonly be heard in the following regions of Zambia: Muchinga, Luapula, the Copperbelt, and the Northern Province. Speakers of Bemba report that the language is divided into 2 groups: the older, traditional form (used in rural areas), and the newer, recently developed form (used in urban areas). The newer form of Bemba, also referred to as Town Bemba, relies heavily on borrowed words from the English language.

Bemba is also used in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and has over 4 million native speakers.

Indigenous Languages of Zambia

Residents of Zambia use a number of other indigenous languages in addition to the regional languages. In total, Zambians speak over 72 indigenous languages. Some linguists, however, believe this number to be smaller, as they consider some of these to be dialects rather than distinct languages.

Some of these indigenous language include: Soli, Kwandi, Chikunda, Tumbuka, and Mbunda. Of these, Tumbuka has the largest number of speakers (2.6 million) and is also used in a wider range of countries, including Tanzania and Malawi. The majority of Tumbuka speakers live in Malawi. Tumbuka is a Bantu language that belongs to the Niger Congo language family and is in the same language group as the previously mentioned Nyanja. Its use in Zambia is primarily concentrated in the Lundazi region. It may also be referred to as the Chitumbuka language, which means it belongs to the Tumbuka people.


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