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Home Education Language Learning The official languages of South Africa
Last update on 08/07/2022

Eleven official languages make South Africa the country with the second-largest number of constitutionally recognized 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 official languages next to Bolivia and India. All 11 languages 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.


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English is the lingua franca of South Africa. It originally came to South Africa from 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 has many words as well as phrases from the more prevalent indigenous languages like Afrikaans and isiZulu.


Setswana ties with English as the fourth most prevalent home language in South Africa. Another popular language in the country, Setswana is also a national language in neighboring 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 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 also goes by the name of 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 has several names in South Africa, including Thonga, xiTsonga, and Shangaan. It came into the northern provinces of South Africa on the tongues of the Vatsonga tribes. These same people also settled in southern regions of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Thus, xiTsonga speakers are 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% of the South African population speak Tsonga as their first language, however.

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 globalization. Competent language translation should enable South Africans as well as other people to create and maintain effective communication in an increasingly connected world.

Tim Keats / Articlesbase / Expatica