What Do They Speak In Madagascar?
‘What language do they speak in Madagascar?’ is one of the questions I am most often asked when I say I have been there. Madagascar has 2 official languages, Malagasy and French. Malagasy is spoken all over the country and is the language you hear on the street everywhere you go. French is also widely spoken with a large part of the population being able to at least understand French. You will not find entirely French speaking cities in Madagascar but French will certainly be understood in all larger urban areas. English is much less used than the 2 languages mentioned above with business people, some tour guides and hotel employees using it.
The language skills needed will depend on the type of trip you want to do and if you stick to the main tourist routes it is possible to get around with just English, but there will be the occasional bout of confusion. Two Finnish travellers I met went to Isalo, Ranomafana, and Andasibe on their 2 week trip with just English using public transport to get around and they said it was ok. I could foresee difficulties with just English if the trip requires more off the beaten path travel or negotiations at regional stations. That being said it is always possible to cobble together basic phrases using a dictionary and some patience. As I was travelling alone I learned some French as much to chat to people along the way and be more interactive than with just English alone. If you are happy in your own company or travelling with a companion some basic French, being one of the languages they speak in Madagascar, will get you around most of the time. I did find however that people, particularly in more rural areas, were quite chatty and it certainly made me glad that I had the bit of French I learned beforehand.
If you are using only English, I would recommend bringing a pen and paper and ask sellers of bus tickets etc to write down the price so you are clear beforehand. I would apply this to taxi drivers as well as they don’t have meters.
Not all guides speak English but as far as I know the main parks have guides who do. If you require an English speaking one it may be best to go to the park office and ask there as they have the official list of guides.
Although widely used, French is not universally spoken in Madagascar and the further outside the capital you go the more people use solely Malagasy but I could always find someone who spoke enough French so that we could understand each other. The porters in the Makay Massif had very little French but the local guide, Narinda a member of the tribe, spoke enough to communicate the essentials.
I learned a handful of Malagasy words along the way and I found people were always pleasant when I greeted them in their native tongue. Some guidebooks have an English-Malagasy section where these words can be picked out or referred to when there seems to be a communication breakdown.