Republic of South Africa boasts no less than eleven official languges. Among blacks in Johannesburg, Zulu and Khosa are the most commonly spoken languages, and I think I can almost distinguish the two at this point when I hear them. Afrikaans can be seen and heard in Joburg from time to time, though it's far more common in the small towns outside of Johannesburg. White descendents of the Dutch settlers are the primary Afrikaans speakers.
Those three languages are all of the official eleven, but I hear plenty of other languages as I make my way around town. The West African immigrants largely speak French. Hebrew can be seen on the walls of Norwood, a neighborhood with a large Jewish population. Chinese business owners sometimes slip into their native tongue when talking with staff. Greenside, my boss's neighborhood, has a large Muslim population, and I've heard what I believe to be Urdu in shopping centers near my office.
English is the lingua franca that everyone uses to communicate in public. It too is one of the official eleven. And, until I came to Johannesburg, I thought I spoke it quite fluently.
Perhaps half of the white population speaks English in the home. Most of these individuals are descended from British settlers. For the most part, they we can understand each other perfectly fine, though South African English has its fair share of unique nomenclature. Instead of honking their car horn, South Africans "hoot" their "hooter." My friend Mark does not drive a pick-up truck, he uses a "bakkie." "Lakker" isn't a kind of varnish, though it is pronounced like "lacquer." Rather, "lakker" is an adjective meaning "cool" or "nice." Confusingly, South Africans use the slang term “bucks” for currency, but they mean rand, not US dollars. I’m often thrown off, then, when South African friends talk about spending 10,000 bucks a month on rent. I think that real estate is ridiculously pricey until I do the 8 rand to 1 dollar conversion in my head.
The "English" whites can also identify me as an American by my accent. With the huge amounts of American TV, movies, and music imported from my home country, I expected the rest of the population to fully understand my accent, but this is not always the case. . Afrikaners, Zulus and Khosa-speakers will often ask if I’m from Europe. I sometimes have to repeat myself when ordering at a restaurant or asking directions. I don’t mind the confusion too much because I then don’t feel nearly as guilty when I have to ask my South African conversant to repeat themselves as well.
Somehow, even with all the linguistic confusion, South Africans are able to get their points across to one another. Sometimes I think it’s nothing short of a miracle, but the locals take all the different languages and accents for granted, only slightly thrown off when they meet a strange-sounding “European” like myself.