The wild, endless plains of Namibia’s deserts, the rugged coastlines of South Africa, the roar of Victoria Falls in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and the oasis of Botswana’s Okavango Delta; Southern Africa is wildly diverse, and strikingly beautiful.

But perhaps nothing here is as diverse as the thousands of languages spoken, each as varied and vibrant as the many communities and countries they belong to. In Southern Africa alone, an estimated 1,500-2,000 native languages are spoken across every single day. In addition to that, when the Colonial European empires carved the entire African continent up between them, they introduced English (and to a lesser extent, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and German too).

So what does this mean for you as a traveller in Southern Africa?

Well, for the most part it means you could backpack your way from Lilongwe to Cape Town, right through multiple diverse countries, and never pass through one where English isn’t recognised as an official language. You could even rely solely upon your own mother tongue to get by – as most people will have at least a basic understanding of English.

You could do that – but as we know, the best experiences happen when you step outside your comfort zone and stumble through some unfamiliar phrases with the smiling storekeeper you’ve just met. Learning a few words in the local language will gain you a lot of respect, and help you understand the local culture in the process.

So you know your lekker from your nnyaa, here’s your beginner’s guide to who speaks what, and where, in Southern Africa.