Africa is a linguistically diverse continent, playing host to thousands upon thousands of languages.
In fact, the exact amount is unknown as there are so many to keep track of. Various estimations place the total at somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000, while other counts suggest there could be more than 3,000.
Brands that want to access the potentially lucrative markets in Africa will therefore need to translate their content into the likes of Hausa, Swahili and Zulu, as well as the usual suspects of English, French and Portuguese.
As many as 10 of 15 fastest-growing economies in the world are based in Africa, according to a recent UN report, while foreign direct investment has jumped almost 700% over the course of past decade.
It is predicted that the number of middle-class households will increase by half from 2010 to 2020, plus, by 2030, the top 18 cities in Africa will have a combined spending power totalling US$1.3 trillion.
If companies want a slice of this pie, they will need to appeal to a wide audience – and adopting a local language, or two, is one of the best ways of ensuring products and services reach all four corners of the continent.
Just speaking English, French and Portuguese no longer cuts it. Brands seeking to benefit from the rising economic tide will need access to translation and interpreting services in many tongues from very different regions.
Here we take a look at the language landscape in Africa.
There are at least 75 languages in Africa which have more than one million speakers to their name. The rest are spoken by populations ranging from a few hundred to several hundred thousand speakers.
There are four main language groupings in Africa.
This language family is the largest group of Africa – and probably of the world – in terms of the number of languages. It covers two thirds of the continent, including western, central, eastern and southern areas, and consists of between 1,300 and 1,700 languages.
These languages – of which there are between 200 and 300 – are found mainly in the northern regions of Africa, including Nigeria, Niger and Somalia, as well as the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and parts of the Sahel.
This grouping of approximately 250 languages occupies eastern and north-eastern regions of Africa, including countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Chad and Sudan, as well as southern parts of Egypt.
This language family is the smallest of the four, with between 40 and 70 members. It is believed to be the oldest, having originated outside of Africa, and is mainly found in southern areas of the continent.
That’s not all…
Other notable language groups in Africa include the Indo-European and Austronesian families – the presence of which date back thousands of years, having also originated outside the continent as a result of foreign influence.
Indo-European is spoken on the southern tip of the continent, while Austronesian is spoken in the island country of Madagascar.
There are several unclassified languages as well, the vast majority of which are primarily oral and therefore not available in written form, not to mention a large number of sign languages, many of which are language isolates.
What are Africa’s common tongues?
Such a wide variety of languages can give brands a serious headache when it comes to translation. It is therefore important to focus on languages that are spoken by large numbers of people across several countries.
Arabic, Berber and Swahili are some of the most widely spoken languages in Africa, with hundreds of millions of speakers between them. Swahili, for example, is often referred to as the lingua franca of south-east Africa.
Hausa, meanwhile, is known as the lingua franca of western Africa. Other important languages in the west of the continent are Yoruba, Igbo and Fula – again, they are spoken by millions of people as both a first and second language.
Oromo and Somali are two of the main languages found in northern parts of Africa, while Zulu and Afrikaans – the latter is related to Dutch – are two of the most important languages in southern regions of the continent.
English, French and Portuguese are also widely spoken, often acting as a communication tool between different cultural groups.
But the proficiency of the examples listed above is why brands should seriously consider translating their content into languages other than the traditional big three.
Translation can bridge the gap
When economic opportunities begin to surface anywhere in the world, just like in Africa, business soon follows.
Addressing new markets is always a big challenge, especially for smaller companies, so having a sound action plan in place is of the utmost importance. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail, or something like that.
Translation is vital to business success. It helps to bridge language gaps, enabling cross-border business to happen.
In Africa, for example, translation takes on added significance considering the sheer size of the continent and vast number of countries within it. The fact that as many as 242 African languages are used in the mass media, according to UNESCO, highlights just how much of a necessity translation is for brands.
The scramble for Africa
Companies have already begun setting up shop in Africa in a bid to capitalize on the surging economy.
China is one of the countries at the heart of this influx. Trade between China and Africa has soared tenfold over the course of the past decade to US$200 billion a year, mostly in infrastructure and natural resources.
The rise of a Chinese population in Africa that is now a million strong has helped facilitate the dramatic jump in trade.
More translation from and into Chinese is therefore expected in the years to come as the Chinese continue their expansion, increasingly targeting a middle class of consumers that is already larger than that of India.
China’s big brands are currently laying the groundwork for when Africa’s wealth and population explodes. Western companies will undoubtedly follow suit.