Main language

A national language is a language (or language variant, i.e. dialect) which has some connection—de facto or de jure—with a people and perhaps by extension the territory they occupy. The term is used variously. A national language may for instance represent the national identity of a nation or country. National language may alternatively be a designation given to one or more languages spoken as first languages in the territory of a country.

C.M.B. Brann, with particular reference to Africa, suggests that there are "four quite distinctive meanings" for national language in a polity:[1]

  • "Territorial language" (chthonolect, sometimes known as chtonolect[2]) of a particular people
  • "Regional language" (choralect)
  • "Language-in-common or community language" (demolect) used throughout a country
  • "Central language" (politolect) used by government and perhaps having a symbolic value.

The last is usually given the title of official language.

Standard languages, such as Standard German, Standard French, and Standard Spanish, may serve as national (language-in-common), regional, and international languages.

Official versus national languages

"National language" and "official language" are best understood as two concepts or legal categories with ranges of meaning that may coincide, or may be intentionally separate. Obviously a stateless nation is not in the position to legislate an official language, but their language may be considered a national language.

Some languages may be recognized popularly as "national languages," while others may enjoy a high degree of official recognition. Some examples of national languages that are not official languages include Cherokee, Navajo, and other living Native American languages.

In many African countries, some or all indigenous African languages are legally recognized as " languages" with "official language" status being given to the former colonial language (English, French, Portuguese, or Spanish).

Certain languages may enjoy government recognition or even status as official languages in some countries while not in others.

National and official languages


Albanian is the national language in Albania.


Arabic and Berber are national languages in Algeria.


Andorra's national language is Catalan; moreover Catalan is an official language in several territories in Spain (Catalonia, Valencian Community, Balearic Islands, the Catalan-Aragonese borderlands known as La Franja and the Murcian municipality of El Carche), and is spoken (without official recognition or status) in territories in France (Pyrénées Orientales) and in Italy (Alghero).


Bangla or Bengali is considered to be national language of Bangladesh.


Bulgarian language is the national language in Bulgaria.


Canada's official languages since the Official Languages Act of 1969 are English (Canadian English) and French (Canadian French). Depending on one's views of what constitute a "nation" these two languages may be considered two equal national languages of a nation called "Canada", or the national languages of two nations within one state, English Canada and French Canada.

Quebec nationalists consider Quebec French the national language of the Quebec nation.

Besides this there many Aboriginal languages of Canada which are the national languages of one or more of Canada's First Nations groups (formerly "Indians"), Inuit (formerly "Eskimos"), and Metis (mixed First Nations-European people). Notably the Cree language is spoken (with variations) from Alberta to Labrador.

Greater China

See also: Languages of China, Standard Chinese and History of Mandarin.

In China, plenty of spoken variants exist in different parts of the country. In ancient times, several local dialects were chosen as the official spoken language, such as the dialects from Hangzhou, Nanjing, etc.

After the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, the Kuomintang (Chinese nationalists) founded the Republic of China (ROC). In order to promote a sense of national unity and enhance the efficiency of communications within the nation, the ROC decided to designate a national language. The Beijing dialect of Mandarin and Guangzhou dialect of Cantonese were the most popular options. Ultimately the Beijing dialect was chosen as the national language and given the name 國語 in Chinese (Pinyin: Guóyǔ, lit. national language, commonly known as "Standard Chinese" in English). In the beginning, there were attempts to introduce elements from other Chinese spoken variants into the national language, in addition to those existing in the Beijing dialect, but this was deemed too difficult and was abandoned in 1924. Since then, the Beijing dialect became the major source of standard national pronunciation, due to its prestigious status in the preceding Qing Dynasty. Elements from other dialects exist in the standard language.

After the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party established the People's Republic of China (PRC) in mainland China. The Kuomintang regime of the Republic of China retreated to the island of Taiwan and maintained the same policy. Similarly, the People's Republic of China, which administers mainland China, continued the effort and renamed the national language, largely based on the Beijing dialect, as 普通话 (Pinyin: pǔtōnghuà, lit. common speech).[3]


Finland has two national languages: namely the Finnish language and the Swedish language. The Constitution of Finland guarantees the right to use Finnish and Swedish in courts and other state institutions.[4][5] The Language Act details the use of the languages by public authorities.[6] Finnish is spoken by circa 90 percent of the population while Swedish is spoken by circa 5 percent. Despite the large difference in the numbers of users, Swedish is not officially classified as a minority language but equal to Finnish. Both national languages are compulsory subjects in school (except for children with a third language as mother tongue) and a language test is a prerequisite for governmental offices where a university degree is required. The constitution also grants the Sami and the Roma peoples the right to maintain and develop their languages: The Sami have partial right to use Sami languages in official situations according to other laws.[7]


The official and national language of Germany is Standard German, with over 95% of the country speaking Standard German or German dialects as their first language.[8]


Haiti's official languages are Haitian Creole and French. While French is the language used in the media, government and education, 90-95% of the country speak Haitian Creole as the home language while French is learned in school.


Today, there are 22 official languages in India. Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu. Even though English language is not included in the Eighth Schedule to the Indian Constitution. as it is a foreign language, it is one of the official languages of Union of India.[9] However, a plurality of speakers in India speak Hindi or English. Till 1965, Articles 343 and 345 of the Constitution of India specified that the official language of India to be Hindi in Devanagari script, though states of India were free to adopt one or more local languages for all or any of the official purposes of that state.[10] Pursuant to agitations particularly in South India in the 60s, today all 22 languages carry official status and Government documents can be in any of the 22 recognized official languages. This has been clarified by court rulings as well, most recently in 2010 Gujarat High Court affirming equal role to all 22 languages.[11][12] India is a Common law country---therefore, unless overturned by the legislature or a higher court explicitly, the ruling in 2010 takes precedence and all 22 official languages are meant to be taken on equal footing. Currency notes in India typically carry the denomination in all languages as well.


Indonesia only recognize one official language: Indonesian language. Meanwhile, Indonesia have the more than 700 living languages, making it the second largest in the world after Papua New Guinea. The 700+ languages, therefore, are without official status, and in danger of extinction, notwithstanding the largest local language of them all, Javanese language.


Persian is recognised as the national language of Iran.


Irish is recognised by the Constitution of Ireland as the national language and first official language of Ireland, and the English language is recognised as a second official language.[13]


Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel, though English is also used extensively (e.g. on road signs).


The Italian language is the de jure and de facto official language of Italy.[14][15] Italian is also referred to as national language for historical and cultural reasons, because since the 15th century, Italian became the language used in the courts of every state in Italy and in general among all educated Italians (scholars, writers, poets, philosophers, scientists, composers and artist) who contributed to what is nowadays the culture of Italy.[16] Furthermore, Italian was often an official language of the various Italian states before unification, slowly replacing Latin, even when ruled by foreign powers (such as the Spaniards in the Kingdom of Naples, or the Austrians in the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia).[17]


While English and Swahili are official languages, Swahili also has a special status as national language. None of the country's biggest languages (Gikuyu, Luo, Kamba, Kalenjin, etc.) have any explicit legal status on the national level, however the 2010 constitution enjoins the state to "promote and protect the diversity of language of the people of Kenya."[18]


In Lebanon, the Arabic language is the "official national" language.[19]


The national, and official language of the Republic of Macedonia is the Macedonian language.


The Maltese language is the national language of Malta. It is also the official language of the island, together with English. Maltese only is recognised as "national" in Chapter 1 of the Laws of Malta.


Although English is the only nationwide official language in Namibia, there are also 20 National languages, which are each spoken by more or less sizeable portions of the population and are considered Namibia's cultural heritage. All national languages have the rights of a minority language and may even serve as a lingua franca in certain regions. Among Namibia's national languages are German, Afrikaans, Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Portuguese, as well as the languages of the Himba, Nama, San, Kavango and Damara.


Nepali is the official language of Nepal. Nepal is rich in culture and language there are many languages spoken.


Besides official English (Nigerian Standard English), Nigeria recognizes three 'majority', or national, languages. These are the big three, Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba, each with some 20 million speakers or more.[20]


Article 251(1) of the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan, titled National language, specifies: "The National language of Pakistan is Urdu, and arrangements shall be made for its being used for official and other purposes within fifteen years from the commencing day. Although it has been declared as an official language, so far all the documentation, legislation, legal orders and every thing related on legal front is done in Pakistani English. Mostly the studies at the higher level i.e Masters , M.Phil and Phd. level is done in English."[21]National Language Authority is an organization established to make these arrangements since 1979.


The 1973 Philippine constitution designated Pilipino (a Tagalog-based language) and English (Philippine English) as official languages, "until otherwise provided by law" and mandated development and formal adoption of a common national language to be known as Filipino.

The 1987 constitution designated the Filipino language, which is based on Tagalog with the inclusion of terms from all recognized languages of the Philippines, as the national language. It also designated both Filipino and English as the official languages for purposes of communication and instruction, and designated the regional languages as auxiliary official languages in the regions to serve as auxiliary media of instruction therein.

More than 170 languages are spoken in the Philippines and almost all of them belong to the Borneo–Philippines languages group of the Austronesian language family. In 2007, a six-part series titled The Case of Ilokano as a National Language authored by Dr. Aurelio Solver Agcaoili of the University of Hawaii appeared in the Culture, Essays, Lifestyle of Tawid News Magazine.[22] In September 2012, La Union became the very first province in Philippine history to pass an ordinance proclaiming a non-official language and a vernacular, Ilokano, as its official language. This move aims to protect and revitalize the use of Ilokano in various government and civil affairs within the province.[23]


The official and national language of Romania is the romanian language.


The Russian language is the only official language of Russia, but 27 other languages are considered official in different regions in Russia.


Singapore has four official languages: English (Singapore English), Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Although English is the primary language of business and government and the main language used in education, Malay is designated as the national language. This is due to the geographical and historical ties to Malaysia as well as the recognition of ethnic Malays (about 14% of the population) as the indigenous people of Singapore.

Traditionally, the lingua franca among the different ethnic groups in Singapore was Bazaar Malay, a Malay-based creole. Since independence, the government has been promoting English as the main language of Singapore. The bilingual education policy requires students to study only two languages: English and a "mother tongue" corresponding to the student's ethnicity. Malay is only offered to non-Malay students as an optional third language in secondary schools. As a result, English has displaced Bazaar Malay as the common language among Singaporeans. Therefore, despite the status of Malay as the national language, the majority doesn't speak it.

South Africa

South Africa has 11 official languages. Namely: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. South African Sign Language and Dutch are distinct in South Africa though incompletely emerged national standard languages which also subsumes a cluster of semi-standardised dialects.

The above mentioned languages can be considered as minority Lingua francas — none of these languages are of Official Language Status in the country.


Switzerland has four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh.[24]

All but Romansh maintain equal status as official languages at the national level within the Federal administration of Switzerland.[25]


Ethnically, 10-18% of Turkey's population are of Kurdish origin, and their language is Kurdish. But 95-98% of population can speak Turkish as their first language. In that fact, Turkish is a national language of Turkey. Also there are many other ethnic origins like Circassians, Arabians or Bosnians, and they all can speak Turkish as native language.

United Kingdom

The English language (British English) is the de facto official language of the United Kingdom and is spoken monolingually by an estimated 95% of the British population. Interestingly, official regional languages exist without reference to a national language.[26]

United States

In the United States, English (American English) is the national language only in an informal sense, by numbers and by historical and contemporary association. The United States Constitution does not explicitly declare any official language, although the constitution is written in English, as is all federal legislation.

On 11 February 2009, Representative Steve King (R-IA.) introduced House Bill H.R.997, to declare English as the official language of the United States. On 5 May 2009, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) introduced Senate Bill S.991 as a companion bill.

On 26 February 2009, Representative Steve King (R-IA.) introduced House Bill H.R.1229, a bill to amend title 4, United States Code, to declare English as the official language of the Government of the United States, and for other purposes. On 6 May 2009, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) introduced Bill S.992 as a companion bill.

On 10 March 2011, Representative Steve King (R-IA.) introduced House Bill H.R.997, a bill to amend title 4, United States Code, to declare English as the official language of the Government of the United States, and for other purposes. On 8 March 2011, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) introduced Bill S.503 as a companion bill.

On 17 March 2011, Representative Peter T. King (R-NY.) introduced House Bill H.R.1164, a bill to amend title 4, United States Code, to declare English as the official language of the Government of the United States.

As of August 2011, the last major actions on these bills were:[27]
Bill Last Major Action Date
H.R.997 Referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties 23 July 2009
S.991 Referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs 6 May 2009
H.R.1229 Referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties 19 August 2009
S.992 Referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs 6 May 2009
H.R.997 Referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution. 21 March 2011
H.R.1164 Referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution. 1 June 2011


In Vietnam, the Vietnamese language had been the de facto national language for many years, but it was not until Decree No. 5 of the 2013 constitution that the Vietnamese language was officially described as the National Language.[28]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Brann, C.M.B. 1994. "The National Language Question: Concepts and Terminology." Logos [University of Namibia, Windhoek] Vol 14: 125–134
  2. ^ Wolff, H. Ekkehard "African Languages: An Introduction Ch./Art: Language and Society p. 321 pub. Cambride University Press 2000
  3. ^ General Information of the People's Republic of China (PRC): Languages,, retrieved 2008-04-17 
  4. ^ Finland – Constitution , Section 17. International Constitutional Law website.
  5. ^ Constitution of Finland, § 17
  6. ^ Language Act : Unofficial Translation. Ministry of Justice. (PDF) Retrieved 2009-11-06.
  7. ^ Decree on the Sami Parliament FINLEX. Access date: 3 July.
  8. ^ "BBC Education". 
  9. ^ Stories they tell about languages, The Hindu, retrieved 2013-06-11 
  10. ^ Official Language related—Part 17 of the Constitution of, Government of India, retrieved 2007-11-15 
  11. ^ There's no national language in India: Gujarat High Court, The Times of India, retrieved 2012-03-30 
  12. ^ Hindi, not a national language: Court
  13. ^ Article 8, Bunreacht na hÉireann.
  14. ^ Law 482, December 15, 1999.
  15. ^ Italian language.
  16. ^ Lingua nazionale: le ragioni del fiorentino.
  17. ^ Bruno Migliorini, (1960). Storia della lingua italiana. 1st ed. Italy: Sansoni.
  18. ^ Constitution of Kenya Accessed 2010-10-28.
  19. ^ Constitution of Lebanon {Adopted on: 21 September 1990}. Constitutional Documents
  20. ^ Article 55, Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria : 1999.
  21. ^ "PART XII (contd); Miscellaneous; Chapter 4. General", The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, 14 August 1973, retrieved 2008-04-22 
  22. ^ Aurelio Solver Agcaoili, The Case of Ilokano as a National Language; Part , , , , , (May 2007), Tawid News Magasin
  23. ^ Elias, Jun (September 19, 2012). "Iloko La Union's official language". Philippine Star. Retrieved September 24, 2012. 
  24. ^ "The Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation, article 4". Retrieved 2009-04-30. 
  25. ^ "Diversité des langues et compétences linguistiques en Suisse". Retrieved 2009-04-30. 
  26. ^ In the United Kingdom, English is established by de facto usage. In Wales, the Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg is legally tasked with ensuring that, "in the conduct of public business and the administration of justice, the English and Welsh languages should be treated on a basis of equality". Welsh Language Act 1993, Office of Public Sector Information, retrieved 3 September 2007  Bòrd na Gàidhlig is tasked with "securing the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language" Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005, Office of Public Sector Information, retrieved 9 March 2007 
  27. ^ The library of Congress : Thomas.
  28. ^
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