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11 Official Languages Thrive in Multilingual South Africa

Trilingual government building sign in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa
11 Official Languages Thrive in Multilingual South Africa
on December, 17 2013

Despite the fact that the government, business and media make use of English as the principal language, multilingual South Africa has eleven official languages as mentioned in the Constitution. These languages are known as: English, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Ndebele, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Venda, Tsonga, Zulu and Xhosa. Many South Africans know more than one language while few speak another first dialect apart from the recognized official languages. Some indigenous pidgins of European, black and Caribbean descents are also present although they are not legitimately recognized.

Lingua franca

If you are visiting South Africa, you need not be intimidated with the practice of multilingualism. You will not encounter a major communication problem during your stay because many people all over the country understand and speak English. As a matter of fact, English is South Africa’s lingua franca, or what is known in technology as default language. English is only fifth in rank as a native tongue but it is nonetheless the predominant medium of communication everywhere. Notably, South Africans often add English words when speaking in another official language.

Language diversity

The language diversity in South Africa is attributed to its location in the southern African crossroads – a point where varied districts meet and converge toward the country’s direction. In addition to the 11 official languages, other languages from Asia, Europe, and other African regions are also in existence. By history, the first official languages of South Africa in 1910 up to 1925 were Dutch and English. Later on, Afrikaans was included and replaced Dutch when the country gained its republican status in 1961. Dutch was completely taken out in 1984, hence from 1984 to 1994, the two official languages of South Africa were English and Afrikaans.

Proud of indigenous languages

Despite using English as the main communication medium in business and government, South Africans take great pride in their indigenous languages. Second to English, Afrikaans plays a major role in trade and industry. The biggest number of native tongue speakers use Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and English. Residents in the urban places in South Africa mostly know English while not very many people in the rural areas can speak the language. The 11 official languages trace their roots from West Germanic, Bantu, Nguni, and Sotho-Tswana languages. These are referred to as language families for the purpose of classifying the indigenous dialects according to origin, vocabulary, grammar and syntax. For instance, isiZulu, siSwati, isiXhosa and isiNdebele are grouped under Nguni category. Sotho languages include Sesotho sa Leboa, Setswana and Sesotho. All languages that fall under a common classification have striking similarities.

Regional distribution

The percentage of official language speakers depends on locations. In the Eastern Cape, over 80% of the residents converse in IsiXhosa. Meanwhile in KwaZulu Natal, the most popular language is IsiZulu. The factor that no doubt contributes to the groupings of South African languages is the sharing of common heritage among the people. In the earlier days, clans belonged to common tribes and thus spoke common languages. However as time went by, tribal communities gradually dispersed and migrated to other places to seek better livelihood. In the process, unity eventually declined and paved the way for the birth of varied languages.

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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