I'm looking to backpack Africa in a few years, so I'd like to start learning a language that would the most useful/widely spoken. There are a few conditions I've conjured up though:

  • the language should be spoken where English is not commonly spoken (else I would simply default to English, and rendering years of studying pointless)
  • emphasis is given on languages in countries that can be visited. I realize that Africa is not as developed for tourism like SE Asia and South America are, so if certain countries are outright difficult to get to without paying a local guide, knowing locals, or paying exorbitant amounts of money, then it may not be so beneficial learning that language. Another reason why a country may not be able to be visited the presence of a major war -- though fully understand this is not at all predictable, I would be basing it just on current situations. I also state major because in lesser conflicts, certain parts of a country may still be accessible. This was the case when I visited Turkey.
  • emphasis given on a language that is not broken up into many dialects. To clarify, initially I thought learning Arabic would be most useful, but upon further research, it doesn't seem like the best idea because of how many [incommunicable] dialects of Arabic there are (though reading and writing is still useful).

I realize the constraints may be a bit too strong, but any help is appreciated!

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    Africa is a big continent with many nations: each one with different languages, and different heritage. Your question is way to broad.
    – Matteo
    Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 8:57
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    I'm not an authority so I'm not putting this as an answer, but you best bet is with the colonial languages. After English, French is the next most common official language in Africa, followed by Arabic and Portuguese. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – zeocrash
    Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 9:14
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    Arabic has a standardized form (MSA) that anyone who speaks any dialect of Arabic would understand it because that's what's used in all sorts of media and in writing. A few words and sentences will be very useful for you in all north Africa and many other countries where Arabic is a second language or the main language for some subgroups there. Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 9:24
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    @Matteo That's true but also kind of trivial and not very helpful (nobody is going to learn a bunch of unrelated languages each used in one region of one country to backpack in Africa). The question is whether, beyond all the differences, there are some languages that could be useful in several places. And the answer is “yes, there are!” and I even think there is only one language that clearly fits the OP requirements so that's not a very broad question at all.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 9:56
  • Duplicate? travel.stackexchange.com/questions/35348/… Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 12:15

2 Answers 2


French seems like an obvious choice: Spoken (to some extent, don't expect everybody to be able to communicate with you!) in 20+ countries, not much overlap with English, mostly standardized and easy to learn for English speakers (compared to Arabic or local languages), not limited to a specific region (unlike, say, Swahili which does enjoy some use as a lingua franca but only in a few countries).

There is also quite some overlap between French and Arabic so while the former might not necessarily afford the same level of cultural understanding, it is a practical alternative for everyday communication in North Africa.

I believe that Portuguese is more widely understood in Lusophone countries than French is in Francophone countries (in part due to more extensive schooling by the Portuguese prior to independence) but that's only a handful of countries (Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau) so it would not be as useful continent-wide.

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    French in addition to English will be more than enough everywhere in Africa, except Mozambique. Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 9:16
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    I can confirm that arabic isn't strictly needed in north africa. Many people are literate in either or both French and English (in ex-French colonies: both only for the young people, French only for older people). Focusing on learning French well is definitely the best thing he can do since it enables communication on more than half the continent.
    – Formagella
    Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 10:25
  • @Relaxed I'm not claiming you're incorrect, I simply want to verify: How do you know that French will be a "practical alternative" for everyday communication? And what exactly do you mean by this? For example, in China, English is often taught to kids from a young age, but few people, even the younger generation, can hold a conversation in English. Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 8:08
  • @tofu_bacon First through personal experience, even if that's a tiny sample and the people I have had contact with come from the most educated part of the population. Then, being based in Western Europe, I know many people who went on holiday there (mostly Tunisia or Morocco, Algeria is less easy to travel to) and their experience was similar. Still biased (especially considering the fact that most only did “package holiday” type of things) but a somewhat larger sample.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 9:42
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    Official statistics or even TV broadcasts (French TV never has a problem finding a French speaker to illustrate a sequence on Tunisia) also bear this out. In fact, China pursues a policy of encouraging English and finds it difficult whereas North African countries, most notably Algeria but also Tunisia to some extent, have at time tried to discourage French use (for understandable political and cultural reasons) and have failed.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 9:42

Emphasizing countries that is worth visiting, you can very roughly use the following guideline:

Eastern sub-Saharan Africa: (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda etc.) Swahili, although most Swahili countries speaks English as well.

Western sub-Saharan Africa: (The Congo's, Camaroon, and further west) French In many of the French speaking African countries there are quite a large portion of the population that does not speak English, making French well worth the effort of study.

And everywhere else you should come right in English.

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