These are the most spoken languages in South Africa

 ·18 Nov 2015

In South Africa, Afrikaans may not be the most widely spoken language – but it is still a bigger language than English.

Language has once again been thrust into the spotlight in South Africa, following a decision by the University of Stellenbosch to make Engligh the primary language of instruction at the institute.

While many welcomed the decision, many others – specifically Afrikaans speakers – were less enthusiastic.

The university has since responded to critics that the move would not dilute Afrikaans, but rather just accelerates plans to bring English up at the institute, in line with plans set out in 2014.

The English vs Afrikaans debate follows on from a call from government to make African languages compulsory at tertiary institutes. That call was met by the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2014, when it when it introduced Zulu as a compulsory subject for all new students.

This is part of its broader language policy, which emphasizes “the need to achieve for Zulu the institutional and academic status of English”.

Language in South Africa

According to census data from 2011, Zulu is the most widely spoken language in the country with 11.6 million speakers.

This is followed by Xhosa with 8.15 million speakers, and Afrikaans, with 6.85 million speakers.

English is some distance away with 4.9 million speakers, close to Sepedi (4.6 million speakers) and Setswana (4.07 million speakers).

The Western Cape is home to the most Afrikaans speakers (2.8 million) – while Joburg has the most English speakers (1.6 million).

# Language Native Speakers
1 IsiZulu 11.58 million
2 IsiXhosa 8.15 million
3 Afrikaans 6.85 million
4 English 4.89 million
5 Sepedi 4.62 million
6 Setswana 4.07 million
7 Sesotho 3.85 million
8 Xitsonga 2.28 million
9 SiSwati 1.30 million
10 Tshivenda 1.21 million
11 IsiNdebele 1.09 million

Why English?

While English is only the fourth biggest language in South Africa, it is still one of the most spoken languages in the world.

It is known as the lingua franca of the world, with over 335 million people speaking it as their first language, and another 450 million as a second, in 101 countries.

It has become the language of international business, and is the language of the scientific and medical fields, which use English as a basis for much of the terminology.

But English is far from the world’s biggest language – that title belongs to Chinese, which have over 1.2 billion native speakers, in 33 countries.

As South Africa’s biggest trade partner, the department of education saw it fit to officially add Mandarin to the school curriculum in the country from January 2016.

Chinese is a complex language to categorise, as it is technically a “macrolanguage” comprising 13 individual languages.

It has two main sub-groups, namely Mandarin and Cantonese – the former of which is the primary language of China.

Similar to Chinese, Arabic is another large macrolanguage, comprising 18 individual languages. There are an estimated 242 million native Arabic speakers in the world.

The world’s biggest languages

Research group Ethnologue has broken down the world’s languages (based on available information), having been tracking data and historical research since 1951.

In the 2014 edition of the Enthnologue, the group recorded over 7,102 languages across the world – of which 4,655 are still used today. The remaining 2,447 languages are threatened, classified as in danger of dying out with newer generations.

In fact, 431 languages are described as “dormant” – where no one has proficiency in it – and a further 205 are considered extinct.

# Language Country Additional countries Native Speakers
1 Chinese China 33 1 197 million
2 Spanish Spain 31 399 million
3 English UK 101 335 million
4 Hindi India 4 260 million
5 Arabic Saudi Arabia 60 242 million
6 Portuguese Portugal 12 203 million
7 Bengali Bangladesh 4 189 million
8 Russian Russia 16 166 million
9 Japanese Japan 2 128 million
10 Lahnda Pakistan 6 88.7 million

The figures above represent native first language speakers, excluding the hundreds of different dialects, the group noted.

More on language

SA adds Mandarin to school curriculum

How will English change in the next 100 years?

The problem with making Zulu compulsory for all university students

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