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Speaking the Language

South Africa - Speaking the Language


One of the most difficult challenges that expats face in South Africa is learning the local languages. Although it may not be easy to learn the local languages in South Africa, learning Afrikaans can help you get the most out of your stay.

Languages spoken in South Africa

South Africa has 11 official languages all considered equal under the law. In terms of the number of people speaking a language, English is the fifth most spoken language in South Africa. However, English is the unofficial language of business, administration, media, and politics and is widely spoken by many people in South African towns and cities.

Many South Africans are multilingual and it is common to find some inhabitants knowing six languages or more. White inhabitants usually only speak two languages: English and Afrikaans. In addition, most documentation in the country is printed in English and Afrikaans. Most people in South Africa who speak Afrikaans also speak English.

Close to half of white South Africans use English as their mother tongue. However, as is the case with various English styles all over the world, South African English has its own accents and characteristics, mostly due to the influence of other local languages including Afrikaans.

South African English grammar, spelling, and vocabulary are based on British English rather than American. South Africans use repetition to emphasize certain things. For example, a crowded bar or pub is said to be “full, full” while a freezing winter night is “cold, cold”.

South African English uses words from Afrikaans and other local languages, which gives it an interesting and varied vocabulary. To learn more about South African English consult the Oxford Dictionary of South African English or visit the Afrikaans Language Museum (Tel. 021-872 3441) in Paarl, located in the Cape Wine Region.

Contrary to common misconception, Afrikaans is not spoken exclusively by descendants of Dutch settlers in South Africa but by both white and non-white South Africans. The total number of Afrikaans speakers in South Africa is about 6 million. Afrikaans originated from Dutch in the 17th century. When the first settlers arrived, they gradually acquired certain words from English, French, and indigenous African languages and slowly dispensed the complex grammar and vocabulary of their Dutch language. Afrikaans is the most spoken language in the Western and Northern Cape. In addition, it is widely used by the media.

It is easier for Dutch expats to quickly grasp Afrikaans than expats from other countries. To learn Afrikaans, you should understand a few things about the language. Unlike English words, Afrikaans words are usually pronounced the way they are spelled. In addition, there is some Germanic influence in the pronunciation of some Afrikaans words. The letter “g” is pronounced as “kh”; “oe” as “oo”; and “v” as “f”.

English Teaching Jobs

The demand for English teaching jobs in South Africa is not very high because English is one of the eleven official languages of the country. However, students from underprivileged, rural communities often do not have access to quality learning institutions like those in urban areas do. Therefore, there is demand for volunteer English teachers to help students in rural areas learn English. In addition, expats with special skills in sciences, maths, and technology are usually in high demand.

Language demographics

Zulu is the most spoken language in South Africa, with 23 percent of the people in South Africa speaking the language. It is followed by Xhosa with 16 percent of the population speaking the language. Afrikaans is spoken by 14 percent of the people in South Africa followed by English, which is spoken by 9 percent of the people in South Africa. Most people in urban areas understand English. In addition, it is the most dominant language in government and the media.

Most people in South Africa speak a language from the either of the principal Bantu languages represented in South Africa: the Sotho-Tswana and the Nguni. The languages within each group are for the most part intelligible to native speakers of any other language within the group. For example, Sesotho speakers would find Tswana and Northern Sotho languages comprehensible. Likewise, Zulu speakers would find Ndebele, Swazi, and Xhosa intelligible.

There are nine indigenous languages in South Africa. These languages originate from two main geographic zones. Nguni languages are predominant in southeastern part of the country while Sesotho languages are predominant in the northern parts of the country as well as Botswana and Lesotho. Gauteng is the most linguistically diverse province with roughly equal numbers of both Nguni and Sesotho language speakers. It also has Indo-European language speakers.

Afrikaans is mostly spoken in the western parts of the country (Western and Northern Cape). Afrikaans is also predominant in the central and northern parts of the country as a second or third language by black South Africans.

Other significant languages spoken in South Africa

Other languages spoken in South Africa include Fanagolo, Lobedu, IsiNdebele, and Siphuthi. Many people claim Lobedu is an autonomous language of Northern Sotho. Fanagolo is a form of pidgin common in the mining communities.

South Africa has a high number of immigrants from Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and other countries in Africa. This means that there is a wide variety of foreign languages spoken in South Africa including Italian, Greek, Yiddish, Urdu, Hindi, Portuguese, Dutch, Gujarati, French, and German among others. These languages are not officially recognized in the constitution but are often used in limited unofficial ways where it has been determined that they are prevalent.

Portuguese is the fastest growing non-official language in South Africa. It is widely spoken by both black and white settlers from Angola and Mozambique. These countries were colonized by Portugal and have many Portuguese-speaking citizens. Immigrants from the two countries continue to use Portuguese to communicate with each other. French is also growing fast due to the influence of immigrants from French-speaking countries in Central Africa.


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