Determining the number of languages spoken in Africa can be complex, mostly because it can be difficult to determine whether two languages are distinct or simply dialects of the same language. Still, many agree that the number lies around 2,000. Some of the more common include Hausa, Swahili, and Yoruba. Others, including Dahalo, Laal, and Shabo, are uncommon and only spoken by a few hundred people. While many of the African languages are unrelated to one another, the majority fall into one of four language families: Afro-Asiatic, Khoisan, Niger-Congo, and Nilo-Saharan.
The Afro-Asiatic language family generally covers the languages spoken in North, East, and Southwest Africa. Nearly 400 languages spoken by over 250 million people are represented by this family. Some examples include Aramaic, Amharic, Arabic, Hausa, Hebrew, and Tigrinya. Also included in this group are the now extinct lanuages of Akkadian and Ancient Egyptian.
The Khoisan, or Khoesaan, languages are generally spoken in the southwestern part of Africa, namely Angola, Botswana, and Namibia. What is probably most unique about the 50 or so Khoisan languages is that they are tonal and use clicking sounds. The largest Khoisan language is Nama, which is spoken in Namibia. Others in this family include Haillom (Namibia) and Sandawe (Tanzania). These languages as a whole are generally thought to be dying out.
The Niger-Congo language family is comprised of the greatest number of languages spoken in Africa. This family has almost 400 languages and is spoken by more than 500 million people. In the 1950s, Joseph Greenberg, a linguist and African anthropologist known for his work in language classification and typology, proposed that the Niger-Kordofanian language family join the Niger-Congo language family. Linguists commonly use the Niger-Congo to refer to the entire family, including Kordofanian as a sub-family. Some of the most common languages that fall within this family include Igbo (Nigeria), Swahili (Tanzania), Yoruba (Nigeria), and Zulu (South Africa).
Approximately 100 languages fall into the Nilo-Saharan language family, and well over 10 million Africans speak a language within this family. Nilo-Saharan languages are mainly confined to the center of Africa and are spoken in more than 15 nations, including Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. Some of the major Nilo-Saharan languages include Dinka (Sudan), Kanuri (Nigeria), and Luo or Dholuo (Kenya).
These languages are considered to be official ones of the African Union (AU). Still, many of them are dying out to more widely used languages, such as Arabic and Swahili. Recently, however, African countries are becoming more conscious about the value of their linguistic inheritance.