Your Ultimate Guide to the Languages of South Africa

Languages of South Africa

South Africa is one of the most multilingual and multiethnic countries in the world with a population of about 61,277,395 million people belonging to manifold cultures, languages, origins, and religions.

There is no doubt that the colonial settlements that South Africa suffered from in the past had a great impact on the country’s multilingualism starting from the first Dutch settlement founded by the East India Company in Table Bay in 1652 and ending with the British settlements. Some languages are inherited from the colonial era, some languages are indigenous, and others are combinations of both the European languages and the native languages of the original people of South Africa.

Having been exposed to a wide variety of languages over thousands of years, most people in South Africa are bilingual, and some of them are even trilingual with one language spoken at home and another one or two languages being spoken at work and in the streets.

In this blog, we will take a deep dive into some of the languages of South Africa including its 11 official languages.

What are the Indigenous Languages in South Africa?

Although some indigenous languages are on their road to extinction, we can still see some ancient languages spoken by the South African people such as Khoekhoegowab, Orakobab, Xirikobab, Nuuki, Xunthali, and Khwedam. However, Khoekhoegowab has a much better situation than others as about 167,000 people are native speakers of the language. There are many other African languages like SiPhuthi, IsiHlubi, SiBhaca, and SiLala.

Apart from the unofficial languages mentioned above, South Africa has the following 11 official languages:

  • Ndebele
  • Pedi
  • Sotho
  • Swati
  • Tsonga
  • Tswana
  • Venda
  • Xhosa
  • Zulu
  • Afrikaans
  • English

Now, let’s put a spotlight on some of these official languages.


It is the most common language in South Africa with around 11.5 million speakers. It belongs to the Bantu group of languages. It is spoken in two ways: standard and urban. The urban Zulu is what you hear in the streets and combines mostly both African and borrowed English words. However, the standard Zulu is taught at schools and depends on creating words for every new item or product.


This South African language “Afrikaans” emerged as a result of the Dutch colonization as it was used by the Dutch to communicate with the African servants that they employed in the colonies. This language emphasizes the toughness of the Dutch tyrannical system in stealing the country’s properties and all its valuable resources.

The language originated from the Dutch language with subtle differences in morphology, grammar, and pronunciation in addition to some loan words from German and the Khoisan languages.

Nowadays, around 6.8 million South Africans speak the language and most of them are in Cape Town while others are scattered over South Africa.

South African English

English took root in South Africa since the declaration of Lord Charles Somerset, the British Cape colony governor, that English became the official language of the country in 1822. Although this decision did not look amicable to most of the population at that time, they accepted the new language and learnt it eventually.

Although English is spoken by only 10% of the population as a first language, it is the language of the government and media in South Africa. It is also taught at schools and becomes the go-to language for communications between people of different languages.

Most English speakers reside in urban areas such as urban Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg.

South African English has a unique vocabulary that distinguishes it from the English used in the rest of the world, and the following is an example:

The international English: How are you?

South African English: Howzit?


Also known as isiXhosa, Xhosa ranks as the 2nd among the most common languages spoken in South Africa. It has about 8.1 million native speakers and around 11 million people speaking it as a second language. Most of its speakers live around Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape and Gauteng and other cities.

Xhosa is taught as a subject in South African universities for native and non-native speakers. Also, some primary and secondary schools still use it as the language of instruction.


Wrapping up

South Africa is also a home of people speaking different languages apart from the country’s indigenous languages such as Hindi, Swahili, Tamil, Urdu, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian and Greek. This significant multilingualism has created some kind of respect and tolerance among the population of different cultures and nationalities that live there.

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