Only a small proportion of the local population is fluent in English. Traveling in Angola, then, requires a basic understanding of the Portuguese language. Furthermore, since many individuals move to Angola from neighboring nations, it is occasionally feasible to utilize French and Afrikaans (for Namibian or South African people).
Angola’s languages include those originally spoken by the various ethnic groups, as well as Portuguese, which was introduced during the Portuguese colonial period. In that order, the most commonly spoken indigenous languages are Umbundu, Kimbundu, and Kikongo. The country’s official language is Portuguese.
Mastery of the official language is likely to be more widespread in Angola than elsewhere in Africa, and this definitely extends to its usage in daily life. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the percentage of native (or near-native) speakers of the former colonizer’s language, which became official after independence, is unquestionably greater than in any other African nation.
This predicament is the result of three interwoven historical factors.
- Portuguese was spoken not only by the Portuguese and their mestiço descendants in the Portuguese “bridgeheads” of Luanda and Benguela, which existed on the coast of what is now Angola since the 15th and 16th centuries, respectively, but also by a significant number of Africans, particularly in and around Luanda, who remained native speakers of their local African language.
- Since the Portuguese invasion of Angola’s current area, and particularly since its “effective occupancy” in the mid-1920s, the colonial state, as well as Catholic and Protestant missions, have gradually established education in Portuguese. The pace of this growth was increased during the late colonial period, 1961–1974, such that by the conclusion of the colonial period, children across the territory (with a few exceptions) had at least some access to the Portuguese language.
- During the same late colonial era, legal discrimination against the black people was eliminated, and the state infrastructure was expanded in areas like as health, education, social work, and rural development. This resulted in a substantial rise in employment opportunities for Africans who spoke Portuguese.
As a result of all of this, the African “lower middle class” that was forming in Luanda and other cities at the time started to forbid their children from learning the local African language in order to ensure that they learnt Portuguese as their native tongue. Simultaneously, the white and “mestiço” populations, where some understanding of African languages was formerly common, disregarded this element more and more, to the point of completely disregarding it. These trends persisted and developed throughout the MPLA’s reign, whose primary social roots were precisely in the socioeconomic sectors with the greatest level of Portuguese proficiency and percentage of native Portuguese speakers. As a result of their regional constituencies, the FNLA and UNITA came out in favor of more attention to African languages, with the FNLA favoring French over Portuguese.
The above-mentioned dynamics of the linguistic situation were aided further by the enormous migrations caused by the Civil War. The most numerous ethnic group and the most devastated by the conflict, the Ovimbundu, arrived in large numbers in metropolitan centers beyond their territories, particularly in Luanda and neighboring areas. At the same time, the bulk of Bakongo who had fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the early 1960s, or their children and grandchildren, returned to Angola, but mainly settled in cities, particularly Luanda. As a result, more than half of the population currently lives in cities, which have grown extremely diverse in terms of linguistic diversity. This implies, of course, that Portuguese is now the most important overall national language of communication, and that the significance of African languages is gradually declining among the urban population—a tendency that is starting to extend into rural regions as well.
Although the precise number of people who are proficient in Portuguese or use Portuguese as a first language is unclear, a census is scheduled to be conducted in July–August 2013. Several voices have called for the recognition of “Angolan Portuguese” as a distinct variety, similar to those spoken in Portugal or Brazil. While there are idiomatic peculiarities in daily Portuguese as spoken by Angolans, it needs to be seen if the Angolan government concludes that these peculiarities form a configuration that supports the claim to be a distinct language variety.