The languages of Africa are divided into six major language families:
- Afroasiatic languages are spread throughout Western Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and parts of the Sahel.
- Austronesian languages are spoken in Madagascar.
- Indo-European languages are spoken in South Africa and Namibia (Afrikaans, English, German) and are used as lingua francas in the former colonies of Britain (English), former colonies of France (French), former colonies of Portugal (Portuguese), former colonies of Spain (Spanish) and the current Spanish territories of Ceuta, Melilla and the Canary Islands (Spanish).
- Khoe languages are concentrated in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia and Botswana.
- Niger–Congo languages (Bantu and non-Bantu) cover West, Central, Southeast and Southern Africa.
- Nilo-Saharan languages (unity debated) are spoken from Tanzania to Sudan and from Chad to Mali.
There are several other small families and language isolates, as well as languages that have yet to be classified. In addition, Africa has a wide variety of sign languages, many of which are language isolates (see below).
The total number of languages natively spoken in Africa is variously estimated (depending on the delineation of language vs. dialect) at between 1,250 and 2,100, and by some counts at “over 3,000”, Nigeria alone has over 500 languages (according to the count of SIL Ethnologue), one of the greatest concentrations of linguistic diversity in the world. However, “One of the notable differences between Africa and most other linguistic areas is its relative uniformity. With few exceptions, all of Africa’s languages have been gathered into four major phyla.”
Around a hundred languages are widely used for inter-ethnic communication. Arabic, Somali, Berber, Amharic, Oromo, Igbo, Swahili, Hausa, Manding, Fulani and Yoruba are spoken by tens of millions of people. Twelve dialect clusters (which may group up to a hundred linguistic varieties) are spoken by 75 percent, and fifteen by 85 percent, of Africans as a first or additional language. Although many mid-sized languages are used on the radio, in newspapers and in primary-school education, and some of the larger ones are considered national languages, only a few are official at the national level. The African Union declared 2006 the “Year of African Languages”.