What Languages do People Speak in Nigeria?

The official language of Nigeria is English; however, over 520 regional languages and dialects are spoken throughout the country.

Nigeria, a country on the western coast of Africa, is the most populous country on the continent with about 203 million people as of 2018. It shares a border with Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin and historically was the seat of many ancient kingdoms. The country that is today recognized as Nigeria, with its current borders, flags, capital, et cetera, is the result of its status as a British colony beginning in the 1800s. It gained independence in 1960, and its modern history has seen much strife and bloodshed, including a long civil war. The presidential election of 2011 was the first one in its history that was considered to be a fair, democratic election.

As is often the case in countries whose borders were drawn by European colonial powers, the boundaries of Nigeria are considered by many to be artificial. Many ethnic groups exist within its limits, and many of them have territories that cross several different countries. For example, the Hausa ethnic group has a region that spans from Benin, across Nigeria, and into Cameroon. Many of the ethnic languages that are spoken in Nigeria are also expressed in neighboring countries.

Over 520 languages are spoken in Nigeria today. Many of these languages are of either the Afroasiatic language family, the Nilo-Saharan language family, or the Niger-Congo language family. However, the official language is English, a product of British colonial rule.

The Official Language of Nigeria

English is the language that the government uses for all official messages and communiques, though the dialect spoken is a distinct Nigerian English. Nigerian English is also used in schools as the medium of instruction. It is expressed by about 80 million Nigerians, particularly in urban centers, such as the capital of Abuja.

Regional Languages of Nigeria

Hausa

Hausa, one of the most prominent indigenous languages of Nigeria, is spoken by about 30 million people as a native language in West Africa and an additional 20 million as a second language. It is often considered to be the lingua franca of West Africa, as the Hausa ethnic group is one of the largest in the region. Hausa is of the Afroasiatic language family, from the Chadic branch. Within Hausa, there are many different dialects; however, only Dauranchi and Kananci are recognized as official, standard dialects of Hausa. It is traditionally written with the Arabic script, but in recent years, due to effects of globalization, it has been increasingly written with the Latin script.

Yoruba

Yoruba, the indigenous language of the Yoruba people, is spoken by about 19 million people in Nigeria as their native language, as well as many of the Yoruba in Benin. As many as 30 million people speak Yoruba as their native language. Yoruba is of the Niger-Congo family and drew in many loan words from the Arabic language. It has many different dialects, which depend primarily on the region.

In addition to being a common language in Nigeria, Yoruba is also spoken by many in the Caribbean who are of West African descent and is the primary liturgical religion of the Santeria religion.

Igbo

Another common regional language of Nigeria is Igbo. Igbo culture was popularized in the novel Things Fall Apart, which features an Igbo tribe. It is from the Niger-Congo language family and has as many as 24 million native speakers, both within and outside of Nigeria. There are over 20 dialects of Igbo, but Umuahia and Owerri are considered to be the official dialects.

Indigenous Languages of Nigeria

In recent years, the government of Nigeria has made steps to recognize and preserve the indigenous languages and cultures of Nigeria. Indigenous languages are particularly common in the country’s vast rural areas. Some of the indigenous languages are endangered, and out of over 500, at least seven are now extinct. Globalization is one factor that is threatening some of Nigeria’s indigenous languages, as many people want to learn and communicate in English. Additionally, rapid urbanization – rural people leaving their farms and villages to try to find economic opportunities in bigger cities – is causing people to have to drop their indigenous languages in favor of English.

Sign Languages of Nigeria

Deaf people in Nigeria generally communicate with Nigerian Sign Language. It was developed primarily from American Sign Language and was introduced in 1960 – the year that Nigeria gained independence – by a missionary named Andrew Foster. Deaf people in Chad and the Republic of the Congo also use Nigerian Sign Language.

Within Nigeria, Hausa people who are deaf generally use Hausa Sign Language. Other indigenous people, particularly the Bura, use Bura Sign Language

Sources:

“Nigeria.” CIA World Factbook. “Languages of Nigeria.” Wikipedia. “Nigeria.” Ethnologue. “Yoruba Language.” Wikipedia.