Language in South Africa

south africa flag

South Africa is a melting-pot of different languages – something you’d probably expect from a country with no less than 11 different official languages! These official languages are: Zulu, Afrikaans, English, Xhosa, Ndebele, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Venda, Northern Sotho and Tsonga. The variety doesn’t stop there though, as there are many more languages spoken here too, either by smaller traditional ethnic groups or by immigrants to the country.

Most people think that English is the most commonly spoken language in South Africa and that they will be able to go anywhere if they speak it. While most South Africans do speak more than one language, English is not always spoken. In fact, the most commonly spoken language is Zulu, followed by Xhosa and then Afrikaans – English is actually the fourth widely used language in the country, although it is the language for trade and business. In order to make you feel more comfortable though, it has to be mentioned that English is spoken as a second language by about 60% of South Africans, and is commonly used in the major cities.

So what language should you brush up on before your gap year in South Africa? Well, it really depends where you are going! In the western half of the country, Afrikaans is the predominant language, while the south-east is mainly Xhosa. KwaZulu-Natal has a very high percentage of Zulu speakers, and the north of the country is predominantly Tswana. Have a look at this great map to decide which language you should start to learn…

As with every country, there are a number of phrases that you’ll hear almost every single day, and for a foreigner they will often be a complete mystery. Instead of trying to list them all here, we’ve found a link to a great site, which lists in detail the different phrases you might hear while on your South African travels. Find it by clicking here.

So, when in South Africa use your time to immerse yourself in the different languages and cultures. Learn a few phrases before you go but don’t worry too much about not being understood – you can always resort to the surprisingly effective universal language of mime when all else fails! Besides, South Africans are kind and friendly people, so they’ll understand any language barriers and help you through. You’ll never learn every language in South Africa, but you’ll definitely have fun trying!

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