Languages of Zambia

Zambia has several major indigenous languages, all of them members of the Bantu family. English is the official language and the major language of business and education.

Zambia - Street in Lusaka
Street view in Lusaka with signs in English.

Indigenous Zambian languages

Zambia is widely claimed to have over 72 languages and dialects. Most of these might be better regarded as dialects and some of them, have a long history within Zambia, while others, such as Silozi, arose as a result of 18th and 19th-century migrations. All of Zambia's vernacular languages are members of the Bantu family and are closely related to one another.

Although there are several Languages spoken in Zambia, Seven of them were officially recognised as regional languages and they still have this official status.[1] Together these represent the major languages of each province: Bemba (Northern Province, Luapula, Muchinga and the Copperbelt), Nyanja (Lusaka), Lozi (Western Province), Tonga and Lozi (Southern Province), and Kaonde, Luvale and Lunda (Northwestern Province). These seven languages are used, together with English, in early primary schooling and in some government publications. A common orthography was approved by the Ministry of Education in 1977.[2][3]

According to the 2000 census, Zambia's most widely spoken languages are Bemba (spoken by 52% of the population as either a first or second language), Nyanja (37%), Tonga (15%) and Lozi (11%).

In some languages, particularly Bemba and Nyanja, Zambians distinguish between a "deep" form of the language, associated with older and more traditional speakers in rural areas, and urban forms (sometimes called "town language" or Chitauni, such as Town Bemba and Town Nyanja) that incorporate a large number of borrowings from English and other innovations.

An urban variety of Nyanja is the lingua franca of the capital Lusaka and is widely spoken as a second language throughout Zambia. Bemba, the country's largest indigenous language, also serves as a lingua franca is some areas.

Significance of Zambian languages

Local Zambian Languages plays an important role in different sectors of society.[4] For instance, in the education sector, local languages allow pupils to express themselves freely.

Zambian English

English, the former colonial language, serves as a common language among educated Zambians. At independence in 1964, English was declared the national language. English is the first language of only 2% of Zambians but is the most commonly used second language.

The English spoken in Zambia has some distinctive features, such as the omission of certain object pronouns that would be obligatory in Western English ("Did you reach?"), the simplification of some phrasal verbs ("throw" instead of "throw away"), subtle differences in the usage of auxiliary verbs such as "should", simplification of vowel sounds (some Zambians may regard "taste" and "test" as homophones), and the incorporation of particles derived from Zambia's indigenous languages (such as chi "big/bad" and ka "little"). Zambian English also incorporates South African words such as braai for "barbecue".

Percentage distribution of major language groups

Language Group 1990 2000 2010
Bemba 39.9 38.5 41.0
Nyanja 20.1 20.6 23.3
Tonga 14.8 13.9 14.5
North Western 8.8 7.7 6.6
Barotse 7.5 6.9 6.3
Tumbuka 3.7 3.2 3.3
Mambwe 3.4 3.2 3.2
English 1.1 1.7 1.7
Other 0.8 4.3 0.3

Source: 2010 Census[5]

List of languages

  • Ambo
  • Aushi
  • Bemba
  • Bisa
  • Chewa
  • Chikunda
  • Cishinga
  • Chokwe
  • English
  • Gova
  • Ila
  • namwanga
  • Iwa
  • Kabende
  • Kaonde
  • Kosa
  • Kundai
  • Kwandi
  • Kwandu
  • Kwangwa
  • Lala
  • Lamba
  • Lenje
  • Leya
  • Lima
  • Liyuwa
  • Lozi
  • Luanoď
  • Luchazi
  • Lumbu
  • Lunda
  • Lundwe
  • Lungu
  • Luunda
  • Luvale
  • Makoma
  • Mambwe
  • Mashasha
  • Mashi
  • Mbowe
  • Mbukushu
  • Mbumi
  • Mbunda
  • Mbwela
  • Mukulu
  • Mulonga
  • Namwanga
  • Ndembu
  • Ng'umbo
  • Ngo'ni
  • Nkoya
  • Nsenga
  • Nyengo
  • Nyiha
  • Sala
  • Seba
  • Senga
  • Shanjo
  • Shila
  • Simaa
  • Soli
  • Subiya
  • Swaka
  • Tabwa
  • Tambo
  • Toka
  • Tonga
  • Totela
  • Tumbuka
  • Twa
  • Unga
  • Wandya
  • Yombe


  1. ^ Chanda and Mkandawire (2013)
  2. ^ Chimuka (1977)
  3. ^ Kashoki (1981).
  4. ^ Mkandawire(2017a)
  5. ^ Central Statistical Office, Government of Zambia. "2010 Census Population Summaries" (PDF). Retrieved 6 March 2018.


External links

Aushi language

Aushi (Ushi) is a Bantu language of Zambia and DR Congo.

Bwile language

Bwile is a divergent Bantu language of Zambia and DR Congo.

Chokwe language

Chokwe is a Bantu language spoken by the Chokwe people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and Zambia. It is recognised as a national language of Angola, where half a million people spoke it in 1991. Another half a million speakers lived in the Congo in 1990, and some 20,000 in Zambia in 2010. Angola's Instituto de Línguas Nacionais (National Languages Institute) has established spelling rules for Chokwe with a view to facilitate and promote its use. It is used as a lingua franca in eastern Angola.

Kuhane language

Kuhane, or Subiya (also known as Kwahane, Chikuahane, Chikwahane, Ciikuhane or Mbalang'we), is a Bantu language spoken by 35,000 people along the Zambezi River in Namibia, Zambia and Botswana. In Tswana it is known as Subiya (Supia, Sesubea, Echisubia). It is one of several Bantu languages of the Zambezi which have click consonants.

Kwangwa language

Kwangwa (Kwanga) is a Bantu language of Zambia.

Maho (2009) lists K.721 Kwandi as a distinct but closely related language.Kwandi and Kwanga had once been classified as dialects of the divergent Luyana language.

Lamba language

Lamba is a language found in Zambia and is commonly spoken in the Copperbelt. There are about 210,000 native speakers in the northern parts of Zambia and southern fringes of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lamba is also spoken in Lusaka, mainly because many speakers have migrated there for jobs. Lamba is a Bantu language. (In fact, "mu ntu" means "one person" in Lamba and "ba ntu" means "two or more people".) Depending on who does the counting, Zambia has between 42 and 78 local languages besides English – see Languages of Zambia for further details. Some people might say Lamba is a dialect of Bemba. Though the two languages share many words, they are not as close as say Cockney and Haitian Creole are to English or French.

Maho (2009) lists the Lima (Bulima) and Temba varieties as distinct languages.

Lenje language

Lenje is a Bantu language of central Zambia. The Lukanga dialect is spoken by the Lukanga Twa Pygmies, fishermen of the Lukanga Swamp. Alternate names for the language are Chilenje, Chinamukuni, Ciina, Ciina Mukuni, Lengi, Lenji, and Mukuni.

Lunda language

Lunda, also known as Chilunda, is a Bantu language spoken in Zambia, Angola and, to a lesser extent, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Lunda and its dialects are spoken and understood by perhaps 4.6% of Zambians (1986 estimate), and the language is used mainly in the Northwestern province of Zambia. The majority of the Lunda can be found in DRC, especially Katanga Province, as well as in Angola. A small number of Lunda dialects are represented in Namibia.

Luyana language

Luyana (Luyaana), also known as Luyi (Louyi, Lui, Rouyi), is a Bantu language spoken in Zambia and perhaps in small numbers in neighboring countries. It appears to be an divergent lineage of Bantu. It is spoken by the Luyana people, a subgroup of the Lozi people.

Ethnologue lists Kwandi, Mbowe, Mbume, and possibly Kwangwa ("Kwanga") as dialects. Maho (2009) classifies these as distinct languages; it is not clear if any of them are part of the divergent Luyana branch of Bantu, or if they are Kavango languages.The writing system of the Luyana language was developed in 2011 and uses the Latin script.The language is taught in primary schools and secondary schools.

Mambwe-Lungu language

The Mambwe and Lungu peoples living at the southern end of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania and Zambia speak a common language with minor dialectical differences. Perhaps half of the Fipa people to their north speak it as a native language. When spoken by the Fipa, it is called "Fipa-Mambwe"; this is also the term for the branch of Bantu languages which includes Fipa and Mambwe-Lungu.

Mambwe language is spoken by the people who are found in Rukwa region, southern Sumbawanga town. It is a language which is one of the three dialects spoken by the indigenous people of Rukwa Region. People of this region speak Fipa, Mambwe and Kinyiha.

Mambwe language is spoken likely to Fipa but there variation in which some terms are understood among the speaker of these two languages

Mambwe language is also spoken in some parts of Zambia as their mother tongue although they differ in manners of articulation.

Mbamba Bay language

Mbamba Bay is the language spoken along the shores of Mbamba Bay of Lake Malawi, variously (and ambiguously) known as Mwera or Nyasa, is a poorly attested Bantu language of Tanzania.

Mbowe language

Mbowe (Esimbowe) is a Bantu language of Zambia.

Maho (2009) lists K.321 Mbume and K.322 Liyuwa as distinct but closely related languages. Mbowe had once been classified as a dialect of the divergent Luyana language.

Mwanga language

Mwanga, or Namwanga (Nyamwanga), is a Bantu language spoken by the Mwanga people in the Northern Province of Zambia (mainly in the districts of Isoka and Nakonde) and in Mbeya Region, Tanzania. The 2010 Zambian census found 140,000 speakers. The current number in Tanzania is unknown; Ethnologue cites a figure from 1987 of 87,000.There are also some speakers of Namwanga in the north-west part of Chitipa District in northern Malawi.The Namwanga language is similar to the Mambwe language spoken by the Mambwe people of Mbala and Mpulungu districts and the Lungu people also found in Isoka. Other similar smaller peoples include the Lambyas, the Nyikas and the Wandyas.

Nsenga language

Nsenga, also known as Senga, is a Bantu language of Zambia and Mozambique, occupying an area on the plateau that forms the watershed between the Zambezi and Luangwa river systems.

The urban form of Nyanja spoken in the Zambian capital Lusaka has many features of Nsenga.

Shanjo language

Shanjo (Sanjo) is a Bantu language of Zambia. Maho (2009) lists it as distinct from Tonga, which it has sometimes been classified as a dialect of.

Soli language

Soli is a Bantu language of Zambia.

Taabwa language

Taabwa (Ichitaabwa), or Rungu (Malungu), is a Bantu language of Congo and Zambia spoken by half a million or so people.

Wanda language

Wanda (Vanda) is a Bantu language of Tanzania.

Zambian Sign Language

Zambian Sign Language is a sign language used by the Deaf community in Zambia. It is not clear how many Zambians use Zambian Sign Language, although it is taught in some special schools and interpreters appear on some television programmes. The Association of Sign Language Interpreters of Zambia (ASLIZ) is involved in promoting greater support for and recognition of Zambian Sign Language in schools, in the government and in entertainment media such as television.

Languages of Zambia
Official language
Regional languages
Indigenous languages
Sign languages

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