All you need to know about South African languages

South African Languages
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What language do South Africans speak?

Due to the country’s diverse cultural spread, there are 11 official South African languages.

South Africa is a multilingual country. That means, most people in South African can speak at least 2 languages. In fact, South Africans are so confident in the languages, they can switch from one to the other, in one conversation. For example, using English and Afrikaans, or Zulu and Afrikaans in the same sentence. 

English is prominently spoken throughout the country. English may not be their first language, but most South Africans will be able to confidently communicate with you in English. 

However, it is important to note that even if you speak the same language as a South African, you may not understand each other 100% of the time. For example, instead of “elevator,” South Africans say “lift.”  Instead of “truck”, South Africans say “bakkie.” Before you go, it’s a great idea to familiarise yourself with South African English.

Language1st Language%  (1st Language)2nd LanguageTotal
isiZulu11.6 million22.70%15.7 million27.3 million
isiXhosa8.1 million16%11.0 million19.1 million
Afrikaans6.9 million13.50%10.3 million17.2 million
English4.9 million9.60%11.0 million15.9 million
Sesotho4.6 million9.10%9.1 million13.8 million
Setswana4.1 million8%7.7 million11.8 million
Sesotho3.8 million7.60%7.9 million11.8 million
Xitsonga2.3 million4.50%3.4-million5.7 million
siSwati1.3 million2.50%2.4 million3.7 million
Tshivenda1.2 million2.40%1.7 million2.9 million
isiNdebele1.1 million2.10%1.4 million2.5 million

While these are the 11 official South African languages, there are many more languages spoken throughout the country.

Here’s a brief description of the official South African languages:

English
south african languages

First-language users: 4,892,623 (9.6% of South Africans)
Second-language users: 11,000,000 (2002 estimate)
All users: 15,892,623 (estimate)

English is the home language of only 9.6% of South Africans, but because South Africa is a multi-lingual country, English is widely spoken and understood. 

English is prominent—you can hear it on tv, in government, in business, and in public life.  Locals may speak to each other in their native languages, then turn around and speak to you in English.

Afrikaans
south african languages

First-language users: 6,855,082 (13.5% of South Africans)
Second-language users: 10,300,000 (2002 estimate)
All users: 17,155,082 (estimate)

As a Dutch dialect, Afrikaans is the result of the Dutch colonization of South Africa during the 17th century.

As a first language, Afrikaans is spoken by all the races in South Africa (White, Colored, Black, Indian/Asian.

isiZulu
South African Languages

First-language users: 11,587,374 (22.7% of the population)
Second-language users: 15,700,000 (2002 estimate)
All users: 27,300,000 (estimate)

Zulu is widely spoken, particularly in the KwaZulu Natal region of South Africa. Zulu is the home language of approximately a quarter of the nation. It is also spoken by 28.5% of black South Africans, which makes it the most widely spoken language in South Africa.

isiXhosa
South African Languages

First-language users: 8,154,258
Second-language users: 11,000,000 (2002 estimate)
All users: 19,154,258 (estimate)

Xhosa is one of the most widely spoken languages in South Africa. It is the second largest language in South Africa, after Zulu.

Xhosa is characterized by clicking sounds that are formed on the tongue.

Xhosa is dominant in the Eastern Cape.

isiNdebele
South African languages ndebele

First-language users: 1,090,233 (2.1% of South Africans)
Second-language users: 1,400,000 (2002 estimate)
All users: 2,490,233 (estimate)

Ndebele is also known as Ndzundza, Southern Ndebele, and isiKethu. It is often described as a beautiful, melodic language.

Out of South Africa’s 11 official languages, IsiNdebele is the least spoken. The language is confined mainly to Gauteng and Mpumalanga.

Siswati
Swati-Tribe

First-language users: 1,297,046 (2.5% of the population)
Second-language users: 2,400,000 (2002 estimate)
All users: 3,697,046 (estimate)

This language is also known as Swazi, Sewati, or Swati, and commonly spoken by the Nguni culture. You’ll hear siSwati mostly spoken in the Mpumalanga province.

Sepedi
Sepedi south african languages

First-language users: 4,618,576 (9.1% of the population)
Second-language users: 9,100,000 (2002 estimate)
All users: 13,518,576 (estimate)

Sepedi is spoken mostly in the provinces of Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and Gauteng. However, scatterings of Sepedi can be heard as far as Botswana.

Sesotho
sesothu

First-language users: 3,798,915 (7.6% of the population)
Second-language users: 7,900,000 (2002 estimate)
All users: 11,698,915 (estimate)

Sotho, Southern Sotho or Sesotho is spoken by the Sotho-Tswana culture. While Sotho is one of 11 official languages in South Africa, it is primarily spoken by the Basotho in Lesotho, where it is the official national language. The language spreads further north to Zimbabwe, where it is one of 16 official languages.

Sesotho is widely spoken in the Free State.

Setswana
Setswana

First-language users: 4,067,248 (8% of the population)
Second-language users: 7,700,000 (2002 estimate)
All users: 11,767,248 (estimate)

Setswana is also known as Chuana, Tswana, and Sechuana.

The language is closely related to other languages in the Sotho language group. It is spoken in the northwest part of the country and neighboring Botswana.

Tshivenda
venda

First-language users: 1,209,388 (2.4% of the population)
Second-language users: 1,700,000 (2002 estimate)
All users: 2,909,388 (estimate)


This language is also known as Venda, Chivenda or Luvenda.

Venda is mainly spoken in the northern part of South Africa’s Limpopo province by the Venda people. It is also spoken by some Lemba people in Zimbabwe.

Venda is related to Kalanga, which is spoken in Botswana and Zimbabwe. 

Xitsonga
sesothu

First-language users: 2,277,148 (4.5% of the population)
Second-language users: 3,400,000 (2002 estimate)
All users: 5,677,148 (estimate)

Tsonga is a minority language concentrated along the country’s northeast border with Mozambique.

Tsonga is spoken by the Shangaan-Shonga culture. This language is concentrated in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Mozambique, and South Africa, and there are various dialects within the Tsonga language group.

According to Wikipedia, “it is mutually intelligible with Tswa and Ronga and the name “Tsonga” is often used as a cover term for all three, also sometimes referred to as Tswa-Ronga. “

Tsonga has been standardized for both home and academic use.

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Hi! We’re the Cheltens’. We visit South Africa 1-2 times per year. We want to share our experiences with you so that you may make educated decisions when you plan your next trip to the rainbow nation.

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