Home About South Africa The Basics Official languages of South Africa
Last update on January 11, 2020

Eleven official languages make South Africa the country with the second-largest number of constitutionally recognised languages.

There are few more accurate reflections of the cultural diversity of South Africa than its list of official languages. South Africa has 11 official languages, making the country having the second-largest number of constitutionally recognised languages next to Bolivia and India. All 11 languages are mandated to share equal emphasis and importance, in usage and in development. It is unavoidable that all the official languages have exerted influences on each other. However, their origins still separate the languages from being fully intelligible to native speakers of certain tongues.


English is considered the lingua franca of South Africa. It was originally brought in by British colonizers in 1795. Its adoption as a higher language to the local languages was prevalent even amongst the original Dutch settlers. Efforts to educate South Africans by sending them to study in English universities also helped its spread in South Africa’s colonial period. Today, despite being accepted as the language for government and education, English is only the fourth most prevalent home language for South Africans (at 8.2 percent of the population). The use of South African English is geographically widespread and is coloured with a lot of words and phrases from the more prevalent languages like Afrikaans and isiZulu.


Setswana ties with English as the fourth most prevalent home language in South Africa. Another language that is spoken widely in the country, Setswana is also a national language in neighbouring Botswana and has a few speakers in Namibia. Setswana belongs to the Sotho subgroup of South-Eastern Bantu languages. It was the first Sotho language to be translated from its oral to a written form by early colonial scholars, in an effort to educate and spread religious teachings among the native South Africans.


Sesotho is also known as Southern Sotho, another member of the Sotho subgroup of South-Eastern Bantu languages. Setswana and Sesotho speakers will most likely understand each other. Sesotho was also one of the first African languages that were translated into writing by European missionaries. It is the fifth most prevalent home language in South Africa (with 7.9 percent of the population as home speakers). It is also the primary language of the Kingdom of Lesotho.


Tsonga is known by several names in South Africa, including Thonga, xiTsonga, and Shangaan. It was brought into the northern provinces of South Africa by the Vatsonga tribes. These same people also settled in southern regions of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Thus, xiTsonga speakers are found here as well. xiTsonga and xiShangaan are linguistically the same language. However, cultural differences separate them owing to the differing clans that were subjugated and not subjugated by Zulu chieftain Soshangane back in the 19th century. Only 4.4 percent of the South African population speak Tsonga as their first language.

The needs of diversity

The South African government intends to preserve its rich cultural heritage by utilizing and developing all its official and unofficial languages. This diversity and complexity doesn’t have to be at odds with the current trends of globalisation. Competent language translation should enable South Africans and other people to create and maintain effective communication in an increasingly connected world.

Tim Keats / Articlesbase / Expatica