English is the most widely spoken language in the world. Travelers from Western countries often assume widespread global English proficiency – but that’s far from reality, especially in Africa. According to Business Insider, only 130 million of the approximately 1 billion people in Africa speak English. Proficiency levels range widely from country to country.
However, a 2021 analysis of worldwide English proficiency published by EF Education First reveals several individual African countries have considerably higher levels of either official or widely practiced English skills. Others show solid improvement since the organization’s first survey in 2011.
Map of English Speaking Countries in Africa
Here’s a look at the top English-speaking countries in Africa, where the populations embrace English for common communication in business, government, tourism, diplomacy, and education settings.
South Africa unquestionably tops the list of English-speaking countries in Africa, based on the 2021 EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) from Education First. English is one of 11 official languages of the country, and about 28 percent of residents speak English as a first language. As with many African nations, this is likely influenced by prior British colonization.
Major South African cities hold the highest concentration of English-speaking residents, including Johannesburg. Known colloquially as Jozi, it is the largest city in the country and one of the world’s 100 biggest urban areas. More than 50 percent of Johannesburg citizens speak Sotho and Nguni languages at home, but a relatively high 18 percent speak English.
Stemming from a British presence by the late 1800s and colonization by 1920, Kenya retains a high level of English proficiency. The country teaches English in public schools, raising varying levels of English use to an estimated 30 to 50 percent of the population. It is especially prominent in urban centers, including the capital city of Nairobi, the coastal metropolis of Mombasa, and the bustling port city of Kisumu.
Both Swahili and English serve as official national languages in Kenya and are also considered “lingua franca,” a practice in which people of differing native languages adopt a common language to communicate on a daily or professional level. Visitors to this East African country note distinct dialects comprising “British English” and “Kenyan English,” both developed over decades of persistent use even after colonization ended.
Just a few notches below Kenya on the EF EPI index, Nigeria is one of the largest English-speaking countries in Africa. Estimates place the number of Nigerians who speak at least some level of English at more than 110 million. Though Hausa is the most widely spoken language in Nigeria, English is still the only official one. In addition, thousands of native languages and dialects exist amongst the 213-million-plus inhabitants of the East African country.
In Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria and seat of government, many residents converse fluently in English, especially when outside the home. Though the primary local language in Lagos is Yorubu, English is important because of the city’s financial center and cultural institutions. Other large cities such as Kano and Ibadan cradle English-speaking pocket-neighborhoods, especially those with heavy concentrations of entertainment, dining and cultural venues.
Variations on the English language include Nigerian English, a colloquial, nativized version of the British English that was introduced during colonization. Creole English in Nigeria has its own distinct dialect formed from French-influenced phrases peppered with African words and dialects.
Moderate Levels of English
Though the EF EPI index designates Ghana as having a “moderate” level of English proficiency, more than half of the 28 million residents of this West African country use the English language in some capacity. English is joined by another 9 to 11 government-recognized languages and 50 to 80 indigenous ones. English is the only one formally and exclusively designated for official purposes as well as for education. But it’s also widely accepted as a lingua franca in which most regional populations participate.
Situated on the country’s Atlantic Coast, Accra serves as the nation’s capital and is one of the largest English-speaking cities in Ghana. It’s easy to communicate in English along the seafront beaches and in trendy eateries, hotels and nightlife spots.
Several African countries show verifiable English-language improvement on the EF EPI, including Tunisia. This is mostly attributed to younger generations embracing wider cultural connections, but Tunisia’s location near European countries also influences the desire to be multilingual. Those who broaden their language skills lean toward English, French, Italian, and Turkish.
As an Arabic country, the official language is Literary Arabic, but many speak a common version known as Tunisian Arabic. Berber dialects comprise the most ingrained minority and indigenous languages.
Ethiopia rates relatively low on the list of English speaking countries in Africa. As one of the few African countries never officially colonized, it retains much of its 90-plus native dialects, including the widespread Amharic and Oromo languages.
Amharic is the official working language in Addis Ababa, the capital city, but English is by far the most common foreign language used for international business, commercial and cultural communication. Private schools in Addis Ababa and other cities promulgate the expansion of English in younger generations and in educated society. Ethiopia was “occupied” by Italy for about five years in the mid-1930s, leaving remnants of Italian-speaking populations as well.
Though Swahili and English share the “official language” designation in Tanzania, at least 90 percent of the 54 million Tanzanian people speak fluent Swahili. Only roughly 4 million are adept at English communication.
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The exception is in Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar, which is a primary tourist destination for English-speaking travelers. Most tour guides and those working in hotel, dining and retail venues converse well in English as well as in French and Italian. In the capital city Dodoma, government entities prioritize speaking in English, and schools start English instruction after the first seven primary years.
In the Southeast African country of Mozambique, Portuguese stands as the official language, a leftover from colonization after 1961. However, most residents use it as a lingua franca rather than a primary or preferred language. English is more common in tourist and beach areas with concentrations of hotels, as well as in major port cities such as Beira and the capital city, Maputo.
As a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, Mozambique has a vested interest in maintaining a population of residents who speak English as at least a second language. In addition, the country is part of the African Union, which holds English as its official language of communication.
As one of the more frequently visited countries in northern Africa, Morocco surprisingly has a relatively low, estimated 15 percent of its population adept at English conversation. The official languages are Arabic and Berber, and French remains popular as the foreign language of choice among residents and visitors.
Within main cities and tourist destinations, including Marrakesh, major attractions such as the Kasbah and Botanical gardens are staffed by English speakers, as are hotel and restaurant staff. The port city of Casablanca and the coastal resort town of Agadir are sure bets for English language fluency, at least by those in the hospitality industry.
Based on the 2021 EF English Proficiency Index testing scores, Algeria has the most rapidly increasing number of English speakers in the world. It still ranks only as Number 75 out of 112 countries, keeping it in the “low proficiency” band, but a recent popular movement toward English is promising to those who view it as important. Tourism has been historically low in Algeria, but the capital city Algiers on the Mediterranean coastline caters somewhat to travelers and business clients, raising the promise of increased English communication.
French is still the foreign language taught in schools, rather than English, a nod to the 132-year reign of France as a colonial power in Algeria beginning in 1830. Arabic and Berber hold the designation of official languages in Algeria.
Though official languages in Madagascar have been altered several times since the end of French colonization, the two that remain are Malagasy and French. English was briefly included as a third official language, but voters removed it in the 21st century.
Madagascar is considered a “Francophone” country, where the French language dominates in academic government circles. However, English is widely used for international business and tourism. Though English is rarely spoken as a primary language in Madagascar, the capital city Antananarivo, as well as Antsiranana and Toliary, hold pockets of English-speaking residents. International travelers and expats in urban centers often use English as a common language for shared communication.
Along with other North African countries such as Algeria and Tunisia, Egypt shows significant growth in the percentage of people speaking English. On the EF EPI, it moved up a band to rest at Number 85 out of 112. However, among English speaking countries in Africa, Egyptians still largely rebuff English as a language of choice.
Most Egyptians speak one of the two official languages, Modern Standard Arabic and Modern Written Arabic. English has been taught in public schools since obtaining independence from Britain in 1952, so its usage has grown gradually over the decades. It is particularly embraced in Cairo and by educated Egyptians countrywide, as well as by those engaging in commerce or international relations.
Official English Language in Africa
In addition to the African countries recognized on the EF EPI, quite a few others list English as an official language. In some, it’s spoken de facto (in reality), while others embrace English de jure (legally recognized whether or not it’s widely used.)
The following are a few African countries falling within the English-language category, even if considerable portions of their populations lean toward regional linguistics and local dialects.
Botswana: Botswana designates two primary languages: English as the official language and Setswana as the national language, spoken by the vast majority of people.
Gambia: Formerly living under British colonization and still being educated in English, many Gambians speak English along with tribal languages such as Wolof and Mandinka. English remains the official language.
Liberia: At least 20 tribal languages make Liberia a multilingual country, but English remains the official language. It also serves a necessary function as the lingua franca.
Sierra Leone: Though the vast majority of people in Sierra Leone prefer speaking the English-Creole language known as Krio, the de facto official language is standard English.
South Sudan: English remains the official language in South Sudan (separate from Sudan). Dozens of indigenous and non-indigenous languages persist, including the prominent Dinka and Nuen.
Mauritius: Though English is the official language on Mauritius, French is more widely spoken, along with Mauritian Creole and Bhojpuri, Tamil and others.
Lesotho: Both Sotho and English share the official language designation in Lesotho. However, most people across the nation use Sotho, a Bantu language.
Seychelles: While only a small percentage of residents in Seychelles speak English as their primary language, it still shares the position of “national language” with French and Seychellois Creole.
Rwanda: The multicultural population of Rwanda recognize English, French andKinyarwanda as official languages. Many educated people speak a Belgian-influenced version of French in addition to English.
Namibia: After receiving independence from South Africa in 1990, Namibia chose to retain English as its official language. However, very few speak it, with estimates ranging for 1 to 3 percent. Most Namibians speak various Oshiwambo dialects, though a small percentage speak Portuguese.
Malawi: As a former British colony, Malawi holds onto its English language tendencies. However, even though it is the official language of the nation, only an estimated 26 percent of the population can converse in English. Chichewa is considered the “national” and preferred language.
Uganda: English stands formally as the official language in Uganda, though indigenous languages are widespread. They include varying dialects within the Bantu, Nilotic and Central Sudanic language families. Due to the continually developing popularity of Christianity in modern Uganda, missionaries and religious schools tend to increase the use of English.
Other African nations that choose English as their official language, with varying degrees of usage, include Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Eswatini, and Burundi.
Though African countries show an extremely high diversity level between high and low English competency, its usage prevails and, in some countries and regions, increases over time. The vast majority of English-speaking nations on the African continent inherited the language from decades of colonization by Britain and from religious mission schools educating young Africans in English. Modern communication systems such as the internet, video and social media also contribute to a familiarity with the English language and its associated customs.
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Its continued use has many benefits in the modern world, including the ability to conduct business, trade and diplomacy, attend foreign universities, obtain better-paying jobs in a modern workforce, and attain a higher socioeconomic status. The Education First organization states in its 2021 report that it found direct correlations between English proficiency and income per capita, exports per capita, gross national income and high levels of education.
On the world stage, English is the official language of the African Union and is the primary method of communication at AU meetings and summits. It also serves as a lingua franca for the 54 African countries that are members of the United Nations.