010_Languages In Namibia

Written Date: 29 Jul 2015
Posted Date: 30 Jul 2015
Revised Date: 31 Jul 2015

The Official Language in Namibia is English. For those of us originating from the USA or other English speaking countries, the reason for this choice can seem obvious.

Not so fast.

There are, of course, different “obvious” reasons for different individuals, but obvious is the feeling of the observer based on their own experiences and predispositions. Many of these predispositions deal with some feeling of English being superior in some way. Personally, I think that’s an experience-centric viewpoint, kind of like thinking the Earth is the center of the Universe. So let’s take a look at some facts. Not to imply that different languages do not have some clear advantages over others in certain circumstances.

Namibia became independent in 1990 – we are in the 25th year of being an independent country. I’ll write about that event, and the country situation today, in a future blog. But for now, realize that English was NOT the primary language in 1990 – not by a long shot. It was pretty minor, in fact. Still is (as a household language). So why English?

Preface (is that still possible in the third paragraph?):  I am FAR from an expert in Namibian political decisions, or in anything else Namibian for that matter. However, I know more being here than I did in the USA, and I’m giving my impressions and learnings at this stage. The potential “true” story is still unfolding for me. Meanwhile, see the “Disclaimer” page in the menu at the top!

In starting to explore languages in Namibia, it’s important to realize that what we think of in the USA as “Race Relations” exists here also (I’ll write about that in the future), but it’s more like Tribal Relations. In the USA, Race Relations usually has to do with the color of your skin: black, white, brown, “yellow” (I never did understand that one), mulatto, or whatever. Here, there is some degree of black/white/shades that’s only sometimes easy to see, but the Tribes aren’t so much different colors as they are different traditions, different cultures, different areas of origin, etc. and the majority of them are black, or some shade of what we people from the USA call black. People from different tribes don’t always get along all that well, and for sure have tribal prides and prejudices.

To try and give you some idea of one realization that has slowly permeated into me, the last sentence in the previous paragraph serves as an example. I originally wrote “Nonetheless, people from different tribes don’t always get along all that well, …” Note the word “Nonetheless” that just flowed out while I was writing. That wording seems OK, but if you think about it, the underlying belief/assumption on my part was(is?) that they SHOULD get along because they are all, ummm, black. “Nonetheless” means “in spite of” (kind of) some other thing that would imply otherwise. Maybe skin color isn’t as important to race relations as I used to think it was? So I changed the sentence to reflect “what is the case”, without the subtle underlying assumption on my part. Being here has raised my awareness of needing to recognize unstated assumptions that may be, but often are not (like in this case), valid.

I’m going to write about tribes later. For now (while concentrating on Languages) I’m just going to list some, not all, of the tribal groupings that have a history and presence in Namibia.

In no particular order, there are 13 ethnic groups: Herero, Damara, Nama, San (Bushmen), Whites, Caprivian, Kavango, Topnaars, Tswana, Himba, Owambo., Basters, and the Coloureds,, These last two are full of innuendo for our western sensibilities, and for good reason based on the culture I grew up in decades ago when “Coloureds” was an accepted, but negative, term in many parts of my country. Now, “Coloureds” is a term that is just not OK in the USA. But in Namibia it is not at all charged, it is simply the name of a tribe of people originating in the area that is now known as South Africa. Same with the Bastars, which sounds uncomfortably close to the western “bastards”, a derogatory designation. Again, not here – it is simply a tribe. While there is some historical basis in both the Bastars and the Coloureds evolving from racial mixes a long time back, the negative connotation we have in the USA just doesn’t exist here to any significant degree. Some individuals, of course, are exceptions.

Think of this as an exercise in really understanding that people don’t always think the same way. “Leaving your preconceptions and prejudices at the door” isn’t so easy when we don’t even recognize that we have them. I wrote “Nontheless” without even thinking about it.

Here is a map of some of the major ethnic groups in Namibia.

NamMap_Ethnic Groups

Given those major ethnic groups, let’s talk about language, now.

  • Oshiwambo (7 or 8 sublanguages), Otjiherero, Kovango languages(5 of them), Afrikaans, Caprivi, and Khoekhoegowab are groups of languages spoken by at least 5% of the population. Most of them have multiple dialects that are actually different languages.
    Note that English is not on the list. That’s because only about 3% of the population speaks English at home. Less than that in 1990. But it’s the national language? Read on.
  • Other relatively important languages (even though less than 5% of the people speak it at home) are: English, Deutsch(German), Dutch, Portuguese, Setswana, and the “Bushman” languages (five of them).
  • Depending on where you look, there are somewhere around 13-30 (or more) significant different languages spoken in Namibia, with a current population in all of Namibia of about 2.2 million.
  • There are four CITIES in the USA with greater populations! And the land area of Namibia is almost exactly twice the size of California (CA population about 39 million.) Let’s compare a little bit. The top 13 languages spoken in California are:
    • 60.5% of Californians speak only English (Arguably the native language to California residents, and only if we don’t look back farther than 200 years).
    • 39.5% speak another language (either instead of, or in addition to, English)
      • Spanish and Creole Spanish 25.8%
      • Chinese 2.6%.
      • Tagalog 2.0%,
      • Vietnamese 1.3%,
      • Korean 0.9%.
      • Armenian, Japanese, German, and Persian 0.5% each.
    • Note that the other languages are all from non-USA countries (although English was one of those 200 years ago.
    • One other interesting fact. The list above (from a prominent web site) doesn’t list the native American language AT ALL! If you add up the “another language” group that comprises 39.5%, it is short 5%. Which means that 5% of the residents speak something other than English or the languages listed. Ie: Native American would be in this 5%.
    • From http://linguistics.berkeley.edu/~survey/languages/california-languages.php, note that there are/were 76 (yup – seventy six) Native American languages spoken in California.

Back to Namibia

  • Within Namibia: Oshiwambo languages 48.9%, Nama/Damara 11.3%, Afrikaans 10.4% (common language of much of the population and about 60% of the white population), Otjiherero languages 8.6%, Kavango languages 8.5%, Caprivi languages 4.8%, English (official) 3.4%, other African languages 2.3%, other 1.7%
  • Namibia has 13 recognized national languages, including 10 indigenous African languages and 3 Indo-European languages (2011 est.)

Hang on a minute: Did you notice the last bullet, above?

  • TEN (10) of the language of the top 13 in Namibia (2.2 million people) are indigenous African/Namibian languages.
  • Compare: ONE of the languages (English) in California (half of the land mass, 39 million people) is only arguably indigenous if viewed within a 200 year window.

Hmmm. How can you compare the USA language experience to Namibian?

We have only listed the major groups, mind you! For instance (only one example), within the Oshiwambo group, the following are distinct dialects that are considered different languages, only two of which have a written form:

  • Oshindonga
  • Oshikwambi
  • Oshingandjera
  • Oshikwaluudhi
  • Oshimbalanh
  • Oshikolonkadhi
  • Oshikwanyama
  • Oshiunda

While the dialects are significantly different (enough that they are considered a separate language), one can understand the other when they are in the same group. For instance, I am now learning Oshikwanyama, and can be understood by (and eventually understand) Oshi…., all of which are considered Oshiwambo languages. However, when two people are speaking to each other from a subgrouping of Oshiwambo, they most likely will speak their own language in reply to the other person’s language. It becomes a lively/normal discussion where the two people are using different languages! This is not unheard of in European languages of course, but it is a daily, normal, and unremarkable event here. Situation normal. When I mention it to some of the women here at Penduka, they look at me as if to say “yeah, so… I don’t get your point?” It’s kind of like saying air is transparent. Doh.

Namibians are virtually all multilingual. It is the norm here for a Namibian to speak at least three languages: Their native (home) language, English (learned in schools and on the job/in life), and Afrikaans or an Oshiwambo language.

This doesn’t mean a few words in other languages, this means conversational fluency! Many, many Namibians speak four or more languages. A small percentage only speak two languages. I have yet to meet anyone, or hear of anyone (native to Namibia), who speaks only one language – with the possible exception of some of the San Bushmen who live in extremely remote rural areas.

As an aside: I, and probably all of you, have been aware of “click” languages on TV programs from Africa. The San Bushmen (in the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy”) spoke with clicks being a part of the vocabulary. It always seemed odd to me, and I know it was to many others. I’m actually getting used to it, here. It is not only not rare, it is everywhere, and is part of the “Khoekhoe…” (pronounced kwe-kwe”) language group. It is also very common with the Damara/Nama language(s). I’ve almost stopped noticing it – almost.

Back to English as the national language.

When the country was being formed (only 25 years ago, remember!) one of the more significant issues they faced was how to transact national business and politics. If they chose one of the native languages,  they would irritate  the language groups not chosen. So, they chose an uncommon (for the country) but common (for the world of business and international politics) language: English. I suppose a cynic would say then everyone was equally irritated – but it’s worked well, if imperfectly, so far. There are very significant challenges to educating the children in English, but the efforts continue and English is, in fact, widely spoken in the country, now.

By the way, my explanation for the choice is not any kind of “official” explanation, and might be argued against by any number of people and sources – possibly roughly the same number that would argue that it’s accurate. But who knows.

The plethora of Languages is one of the most difficult challenges the country faces. And that is not a contentious opinion.


I spent two months learning Afrikaans in Peace Corps training, but found it to be almost useless in my current site even though it will be very useful in the country as a whole (particularly southern Namibia) over a prolonged period of time. So while continuing studying Afrikaans with a tutor, I’m also starting to learn Oshikwanyama (also with a tutor) which is very useful in the North of Namibia.

Where I live, at the “lodge and craft” location of my post, there are (roughly) three Afrikaans speakers, 12 Oshiwambo speakers, 7 Otjiherero speakers, and a smattering of Damara/Nama, Khoekhoe, and others. But they ALL speak 2-4 languages, and the vast majority has some useful English, many are quite capable in English. Plus there are 6-7 deaf women, so sign language also has to be mixed in there at least for this post.

That’s all on languages for now.

  • Back to work!
  • Terug na werk!
  • Terug aan het werk!
  • Zurück an die Arbeit!
  • De volta ao trabalho!

7 thoughts on “010_Languages In Namibia

  1. Phew. I actually got through the blog on languages and even paid attention to all the detail. That said, I am so hoping there will not be a test. It is very interesting and the comparison to California very helpful for understanding how unalike the situations are. I don’t know how difficult it would be to add sound bits of a handful of the languages but I would find that interesting. Including the click languages. Maybe you can check into it during all the relaxing downtime you are having. 😉

  2. Andy’s blog has been quiet for a long time. Have friends/family/neighbors been in touch with him?

    1. No Jan, I’m fine. The transitions, adjustments, and general energy this particular posting require of me caused me to put other things before the blog. I really regret that, s much as i still feel it was the right choice, and have intentions to post again before long. But be patient, or not, and I’ll emerge again being able to better describe some of what I’m getting out of being in Africa that i hoped to get.

    2. I’m glad you’re okay. I was getting a little worried, too. Take care. Myra

  3. Andy…Enjoyed your Blog entries today….love that Bottle House…what a wonderful adventure !

  4. Hey Andy, fascinating tutorial on languages but you could have included a cheat sheet defining dialect source for a couple of your final “work” comments for us curious but language challenged dolts! Keep writing. RK

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s