Colonial Languages in Africa (Map)

This is my first post on WordPress and I must say that I am very happy that it will be on one of my favourite topics. Colonialism in Africa. After the European Colonial Powers cleared out of Africa around the third quarter of the 20th century, they left behind many new nations. Some were then embroiled in civil war, apartheid, under dictatorships, and so on. Stripping away the effects of colonialism (or sometimes struggling to keep it) was and still is a central theme of post-colonial Africa. One of the biggest legacies that Europeans left behind were their languages that had been used to govern and manage the daily affairs of colonies.


Above is a map of Africa in 1914, with a map of colonies belonging to numerous European empires and the basis of which colonial languages I chose to report on with a couple of exceptions.

  1. In my map, as you will see, I included Liberia, which was independent in 1914 but colonised by the American Colonization Society, and thus, counted as an ex-American colony.
  2. Togo and Cameroon are counted as ex-French colonies instead German ones.
  3. Western Sahara or Rio De Oro, was to be counted as an ex-Spanish colony but unfortunately, no sufficient data could be found on its Spanish-speaking citizens, but to clarify, they do exist and are apparently plentiful. The separatist state in Western Sahara, the Polisario Front, has Spanish as their official language alongside Arabic.

My own map that I present to you below showcases the mastery of colonial languages in Africa by the total number of speakers, not just native speakers. In some cases, African countries have more than just one colonial language. In these cases, I collected information on the most dominant colonial language under administration such as Cameroon with French.

Proficiency in main colonial language.png

As you can see, island countries are often much higher in fluency of their respective colonial languages than in the mainland.

Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries also tend to be above average in terms of mastery of the colonial/official language, Portuguese. Angola, where standard Portuguese acts as a bridge language, is one of the very few countries where the knowledge of the colonial language is as high as 71%. Other Lusophone countries typically use a Portuguese creole as the bridge language.

Former-Italian colonies (Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya) had the lowest knowledge on average of the colonial language. Because Italy only held had Ethiopia for a short amount of time, it was not included.

In many Saharan nations, from Mauritania to Sudan, knowledge is very low. Because of close proximity to Arab-speaking nations and Islam’s influence over the region, many of these countries are swapping English or French for Arabic. One example is Mauritania. Once part of French West Africa, Mauritania announced its intentions to focus more on Arabic as opposed to French.

Speaking of non-Colonial languages taking hold, the general area where Swahili is spoken (African Great Lakes) also has low knowledge of English which is the colonial language in most of the countries there. This is mostly because Swahili is the most spoken native language in Africa so another bridge language isn’t necessarily needed.

The last important thing to note is the high knowledge of the colonial language on the central-western coast of Africa. This corresponds with the old Atlantic Slave Trade in West Africa, when many colonial powers had their first footholds in Africa before wide-scale imperialism after the Berlin Conference.

Sources for this information range from OIF reports, national censuses, linguistic studies, and educated guesses/estimates based on individual societies and probability.