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Languages in Angola

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Moving to a non-English speaking country for work is always associated with lots of language issues. Angola is such country. Being multinational and, therefore, multilingual, Angola has one official language – Portuguese (which is a heritage of its colonial past) – and over 40 local languages among which the 6 Bantu languages (Umbundu, Kimbundu, Chokwe, Kikongo, Ngangela, and Kwanyama aka Oshikwanyama) are the most spoken. Another group of local languages – Khoisan – are much less spread. Moving to Angola, foreigners plunge into a melting pot of sounds which can be overwhelming if you don’t speak at least Portuguese.

Foreigners usually live in Luanda in communities, so you are likely to find the support of English-speaking counterparts. However, professional services such as banking or healthcare are provided here in Portuguese. Very few doctors speak the basic English in this country.

Portuguese

Angola has been the sphere of interests of Portugal for centuries starting from the 16th century. The “mother country” imposed a Roman Catholic religion and Portuguese language as prestigious; actually, Portuguese was the only way to get an education. Today, more than 40 years after Angola defeated its independence, it is still the most spoken (over 7 million people speak it) due to its benefits for the state: it integrates the society and provides a mean for international communication. Nevertheless, only a quarter of the Portuguese-speaking population in Angola are native speakers; others speak it as the second language.

Here, Portuguese sounds more European than, for example, Brazilian Portuguese with a slight influence of local languages. In Luanda, you will hear the purest version of Portuguese without tribal sounds. The slang (mostly spoken by a young generation) has lots of admixtures from Kimbundu. For example, you are likely to hear “garina” instead of Portuguese “garota” for a girl or “cubata” instead of Portuguese “casa” for a house.

Kimbundu

The language is popular on the northern west of the country and is spoken by over 3 million Angolans. Like Umbundu, it comes from the Bantu language family. Such Kimbundu words as banjo or tanga are even used in Brazil and Portugal. Actually, the word “Luanda”, which gave the name to the Angolan capital, is the second name for Kimbundu.

Umbundu

Being of the same Bantu language family as Kimbundu, Umbundu is widely spoken in the capital Luanda and further to the centre of the country. Its native speakers (aka Ovimbundu) make up one-fourth of the Angola’s population.

Kikongo

It is another member of the Bantu language family that actually is a lingua franca (the language of interethnic communication) of many African countries located in the neighbourhood of 2 Kongos. The language is spoken by more than 7 million people all over the world. Even countries of the Caribbean area speak some of its creolized versions. Such popularisation can be described by Kikongo’s simplicity in comparison with other Bantu languages. In this language group, Kikongo was the first one that got its dictionary and was written using Latin characters.

Chokwe

Being the lingua franca for the eastern Angola, Chokwe is spoken by the half-million tribe that once was one of the 12 Lunda Empire’s clans until getting the independence from this union. This tribe stayed aside of the Portuguese colonisation until the 1930’s. If you hear words like “chimene-mwanyi” (Good morning) or “xingai?” (How much is it?), you know it is from Chokwe.

Kwanyama (aka Oshikwanyama)

The language is spoken by over 400,000 people from Kwanyama and Ovambo tribes.

Ngangela

Spoken by the small Ngangela group, this language is almost lost because its speakers assimilated with the closest ethnic groups.

Alphabetisation of Bantu Languages

Systematising and developing the written form for all Bantu languages started when the missionaries (generally, Portuguese catholics) arrived on Angolan coast with the goal to spread the Christianity. Helping the tribes to write and read in their own languages was an ultimate way how the Word of God was spread. Another goal was to help the tribes to preserve their languages and identities. Later, the missionaries translated the Bible into these languages and organised the first schools.

Unfortunately, the colonisation had a negative impact on the Angolan identity as well. It brought the capital and power that motivated many Angolans to speak Portuguese (and therefore, neglect their native language) in order to succeed in society. Only the rural areas preserved their identity because they had no access to Portuguese welfare. Languages spoken in these areas remained untouched.

The Institute for National Languages of Angola now continues the work the missionaries started. After Angola’s independence had been gained in 1975, the Institute promoted the local languages, studied and standardised them for teaching them in schools. Today, Angolan kids study their local languages along with Portuguese. Most of the Bantu languages don’t have the consonant sound “r”, but there are sounds (mb and nj) that are represented by 2 consonant letters. The language also has 4 vowels (a, i, e, o) and 1 semi-vowel (u).

Learning Angolan Languages

Foreigners arriving in Angola for work soon realise: English is not sufficient. If you want to feel free in the country, you need to learn at least Portuguese, especially if you are going to work in the urban area with highly-educated people. All professional services in Luanda are provided only in Portuguese. If you need to deal with banks, schools and other institutions, learning Portuguese is a must. You will easily find Portuguese lessons in Luanda, but unfortunately, your chances to learn Portuguese outside the capital are very weak.

Learning the local language isn’t mandatory, but if you plan to stay in the country for a long time (get the permanent residence), speaking a local language – Umbundu or Kimbundu (whichever is popularised in the area of your dwelling) – is recommended. This will help you to blend into the society and be accepted (the locals will appreciate your linguistic efforts). Finding a teacher of either of these languages can be hard, but if you ask local people, they can help you to find a good one. Another option is Alliance Française in Luanda that gives good lessons for both Portuguese and Kimbundu.

Today, in the era of YouTube, radio and TV, learning a foreign language isn’t very hard. You can absorb the local sounds without doing any hard job. Making friends with the locals (outside of your expat community) is also very helpful in learning a language. The good news is that all Bantu languages are quite easy and similar to each other.

Nevertheless, there are lots of foreigners who manage only with English since they live in a tight English-speaking expat community and use English for work. Situations differ, and you should assess benefits and discomforts in your particular case.

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