Arts & Culture

What languages do black, coloured, Indian and white South Africans speak?

Nearly a third of black South Africans speak isiZulu as a first language, and 20% speak isiXhosa. Three-quarters of coloured people speak Afrikaans, and 86% of Indian South Africans speak English. Sixty percent of white people speak Afrikaans, and 30% speak English.

Animated infographic of South Africa's languages by population group

But it’s a multilingual country

These statistics are first-language speakers only, so they don’t show the full picture. The data is from Census 2011, which gathered its information by asking South Africans which language they spoke most often at home.

Almost all South Africans speak more than one language, even at home. Statistics on how many South Africans are fluent in a second (or third, or more) language simply aren’t available.

Home languages of black South Africans

Census 2011 recorded South Africa’s black population as 40.4-million people. (The full number is 40,413,408.)

According to the census, a third of black South Africans speak isiZulu at home, making it the largest language among black people. A total of 11.5-million black South Africans speak isiZulu as a first language, or about three in 10 (28.5%) black people.

Next up is isiXhosa, the first language of 8.1-million black South Africans, spoken at home by two in every 10 (20.1%) black people.

The third most common home language in South Africa’s black population is Sesotho sa Leboa, also known as Sepedi. It’s the first language of 4.6-million black people – around one in 10, or 11.4%.

Black South Africans are the country’s most linguistically diverse community.

Here’s the breakdown of black South Africans’ home languages, from the largest to the smallest:

  • isiZulu: 11,519,234 black speakers (28.5% of all black South Africans speak isiZulu as a first language)
  • isiXhosa: 8,104,752 (20.1%)
  • Sesotho sa Leboa (Sepedi): 4,602,459 (11.4%)
  • Setswana: 3,996,951 (9.9%)
  • Sesotho: 3,798,915 (9.4%)
  • Xitsonga: 2,257,771 (5.6%)
  • siSwati: 1,288,156 (3.2%)
  • Tshivenda: 1,201,588 (3.0%)
  • English: 1,167,913 (2.9%)
  • isiNdebele: 1,057,781 (2.6%)
  • Other languages: 604,587 (1.5%)
  • Afrikaans: 602,166 (1.5%)
  • Sign language: 211,134 (0.5%)

Home languages of coloured South Africans

Census 2011 recorded South Africa’s coloured population as 4.5-million people. (The full number is 4,541,358.)

According to the census, over three-quarters of the coloured population speaks Afrikaans as a home language. Afrikaans is first language of 3.4-million coloured South Africans, or about seven to eight in every 10 (75.8%) coloured people.

Next up is English, the first language of 946-thousand (945,847) coloured South Africans. This means about two in 10 (20.8%) coloured people speak English at home.

Here’s the breakdown of coloured South Africans’ home languages, from the largest to the smallest:

  • Afrikaans: 3,442,164 coloured speakers (75.8% of all coloured South Africans speak Afrikaans as their first language )
  • English: 945,847 (20.8%)
  • Setswana: 40,351 (0.9%)
  • isiXhosa: 25,340 (0.6%)
  • isiZulu: 23,797 (0.5%)
  • Sesotho: 23,230 (0.5%)
  • Sign language: 11,891 (0.3%)
  • isiNdebele: 8,225 (0.2%)
  • Other languages: 5,702 (0.1%)
  • Sesotho sa Leboa (Sepedi): 5,642 (0.1%)
  • siSwati: 4,056 (0.09%)
  • Tshivenda: 2,847 (0.06%)
  • Xitsonga: 2,268 (0.05%)

Home languages of Indian South Africans

Census 2011 recorded South Africa’s Indian population as 1.3-million people. (The full number is 1,271,158.)

According to the census, almost all Indian South Africans speak English at home. English is the first language of 1.1-million Indian people, or nearly nine in 10 (86.1%) Indian South Africans.

The balance of languages spoken by the Indian population is negligible, making this community South Africa’s least linguistically diverse.

Here’s the breakdown of Indian South Africans’ home languages, from the largest to the smallest:

  • English: 1,094,317 Indian speakers (86.1% of all Indian South Africans speak English as their first language)
  • Other languages: 65,261 (5.1%)
  • Afrikaans: 58,700 (4.6%)
  • isiZulu: 16,699 (1.3%)
  • isiNdebele: 9,815 (0.8%)
  • isiXhosa: 5,342 (0.4%)
  • Sesotho: 5,269 (0.4%)
  • Setswana: 4,917 (0.4%)
  • Sign language: 3,360 (0.3%)
  • Sesotho sa Leboa (Sepedi): 2,943 (0.2%)
  • Xitsonga: 2,506 (0.2%)
  • siSwati: 1,217 (0.1%)
  • Tshivenda: 810 (0.06%)

Home languages of white South Africans

Census 2011 recorded South Africa’s white population as 4.5-million people. (The full number is 4,461,409.)

According to the census, about a two-thirds of white people speak Afrikaans as their first language, and the other third speak English.

Afrikaans is home language of 2.7-million white South Africans, or about six in every 10 (60.8%) white people.

Next up is English, the first language of 1.6-million white South Africans. Three or four (35.9%) of every 10 white South Africans speak English at home.

Here’s the breakdown of white South Africans’ home languages, from the largest to the smallest:

  • Afrikaans: 2,710,461 white speakers (60.8% of all white South Africans speak Afrikaans as their first language)
  • English: 1,603,575 (35.9%)
  • Other languages: 50,118 (1.1%)
  • Setswana: 18,358 (0.4%)
  • Sesotho: 17,491 (0.4%)
  • isiZulu: 16,458 (0.4%)
  • isiXhosa: 13,641 (0.3%)
  • isiNdebele: 8,611 (0.2%)
  • Sign language: 7,604 (0.2%)
  • Sesotho sa Leboa (Sepedi): 5,917 (0.1%)
  • Xitsonga: 3,987 (0.09%)
  • Tshivenda: 2,889 (0.06%)
  • siSwati: 2,299 (0.05%)

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Researched, written and designed by Mary Alexander.
Updated 10 April 2018.
Comments? Email southafrica.gateway@gmail.com

 

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