There are eleven official languages of South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.
Fewer than two percent of South Africans speak a first language other than an official one and most South Africans can speak more than one language.
English is the most commonly spoken language in official and commercial public life – but only the fifth most spoken home language. The most common language spoken as a first language by South Africans is Zulu (23 %), followed by Xhosa (16 %), and Afrikaans (14 %).
isiZulu, isiXhosa, siSwati, and isiNdebele are collectively referred to as the Nguni languages, and have many similarities in syntax and grammar. The Sotho languages – Setswana, Sesotho sa Leboa, and Sesotho – also have much in common.
In South Africa, greeting someone you see every day is generally expected, but the greetings are not necessarily invitations to a larger conversation.
South Africans communicate very indirectly and often hide their opinions, especially if it is a negative one about an elder. Hence, you will have to learn to “read between the lines”. Teenagers generally are comfortable expressing negative emotions to a friend, but with family they are often more cautious especially if the family member is an authoritative member of the family or an elder.
Eye contact is race dependent in South Africa: in the black cultures it is regarded as disrespectful to look an elder in the eye, in white cultures it is regarded as disrespectful not to look an elder in the eye.
Depending on the cultural context, personal space may be much smaller, or almost nonexistent, and individual time alone may be rare, especially in the black cultures.
English: Expectations and Realities
English is only one of 11 official languages in South Africa. It is, however, regarded as the country’s commercial and political language, and is spoken by most people.
Therefore, even if you are placed with a host family whose first language is not English, your English will improve considerably during an exchange year to South Africa.
Everybody can speak English, and it is the dominant language on TV, in the cinemas and in the commercial world. But: you must be open and tolerant of the fact that other languages are also spoken in South Africa, and be willing to at least try and learn more than just English.