Languages of South Africa

South Africa has 11 official languages but English is spoken well by almost all South Africans and visitors will always be able to have their needs met in English. Road signs and official notices are all in English. Most South Africans can speak more than one language. Prior to 1994, South Africa had only two official languages, namely English and Afrikaans.

The country's Constitution guarantees equal status to 11 official languages to cater for the country's diverse peoples and their cultures. These are:

  • Afrikaans
  • English
  • IsiNdebele
  • IsiXhosa
  • IsiZulu
  • Sepedi
  • Sesotho
  • Setswana
  • SiSwati
  • Tshivenda
  • Xitsonga

Other languages spoken in South Africa and mentioned in the Constitution are the Khoi, Nama and San languages, sign language, Arabic, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu.

The fastest growing non-official language is Portuguese - first spoken by white, black, and mulato settlers and refugees from Angola  and Mozambique after they won independence from Portugal  and now by more recent immigrants from those countries again - and increasingly French, spoken by immigrants and refugees from Francophone  Central Africa.

English was declared the official language of the Cape Colony in 1822 (replacing Dutch), and the stated language policy of the government of the time was one of Anglicization. On the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, which united the former Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State with the Cape and Natal colonies, English was made the official language together with Dutch, which was replaced by Afrikaans in 1925.

Today, English is the country's lingua franca, and the primary language of government, business, and commerce. It is a compulsory subject in all schools, and the medium of instruction in most schools and tertiary institutions.