The Many Languages of South Africa
an introduction to the languages

Map of South Africa           

Eleven official languages can be found in the nation of  South Africa They are: English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana and Venda. With eleven official languages, there are also eleven official titles of the country. Some of these languages are spoken more than others.  Eight other “unofficial” languages are recognized in the country for a total of nineteen total languages. The only country with more recognized languages is India, with a total of twenty-three. Wow! The two most commonly spoken languages in South Africa are Zulu and Xhosa.      

                                                                                                        Afrikaans runs a close third. 




The most widely spoken language in South Africa, Zulu is approximately 600 years old and was only used orally until European settlers phonetically recorded it in writing using the Latin alphabet (see chart).  Zulu can be a particularly difficult language to speak because it requires certain clicking sounds to be made with the tongue and mouth.  The Zulu people are very well known for their making of baskets and their work with beads. Zulu is considered a category 2 for English speakers wishing to learn the language. Take your best shot, by clicking here: Learn Zulu!






This language dates back to the 1400's and seems to have originated in the southeastern portion of the continent. Like Zulu, Xhose relies on the use of clicking sounds. Relatively recently, the language has incorporated words from English into its dictionary. Today, over seven million South Africans speak Xhosa, however Xhosa is not taught as heavily in South African Universities, as English and Afrikaans. Anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela is a Xhosa tribesman.  Xhosa and Zulu are very similar but are considered different mainly due to the preservation of culture. Zulu is considered a category 2 for English speakers wishing to learn the language. Given up on Zulu already? Try this: Learn Xhosa!




Afrikaans is a language derived from the Dutch, which was introduced to South Africa in the mid-17th century. The language has evolved over the years through numerous factors, like the slave trade. More than one dialect of the language is spoken within South Africa. Afrikaans was at one point, one of the only few official languages of the country, but is now merely, one of eleven. Six million people consider call it a first language and it is a second language to ten million. Afrikaans is considered a category 1 language for English speakers wishing to learn Afrikaans. Not a fan of Zulu or Xhosa? Click here: Learn Afrikaans!


The European Influence



South African's recorded history began with European explorers and settlers passing the country's southern tip on the way to India. The Dutch and Portugese were among the first.  The Dutch were the first to set up a settlement on The Cape of Good Hope.  This was a big step towards Dutch  ownership of the land. Slaves were imported from as far away as Asia, from places like India and Indonesia, paving the way for a diverse nation.  By this point, South Africa's population consisted of Europeans, Asians and of course its original inhabitants.  



Percentage of Language Speakers in South Africa


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