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State language

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Title: State language  
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Subject: 1978 Georgian demonstrations
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State language

An official language is a language that is given a special legal status in a particular country, state, or other jurisdiction. Typically a country's official language refers to the language used within its government – its courts, parliament, administration, etc. – to run its operations and conduct its business.[1] Since "the means of expression of a people cannot be changed by any law",[2] the term "official language" does not typically refer to the language used by a people or country, but by its government.[3]

The choice of an official language or languages (or the choice not to have any official language) is often a contentious issue.[4] Of the world's 193 countries, 178 have at least one official language. Many countries recognize more than one language, a policy which is often unpopular. Some countries have used official language designation to empower indigenous groups by giving them access to the government in their native languages. In countries that chose not to designate an official language, a de facto national language usually evolves. English is the most common official language, with some recognized status in 51 countries. Arabic, French, and Spanish are also widely recognized.


Of the 193 widely recognized countries, 178 have an official language at the national level. Among those, English is the most common with 51 nations giving it official status. French is second with 28 countries. Arabic and Spanish are the official language of 19 countries each. No other language has official status in more than seven countries.[5] Twenty-seven languages have official status in at least two countries. If de facto national languages are also included, the results do not materially change.[6] Chinese, the world's most common first language with 1.2 billion native speakers, has official status in just two countries.[6][7] Swahili has official status in four countries despite being the first language of fewer than 800,000 people.[6] Javanese, spoken by 84 million people natively, is the most common language with no official status in any country.[6]

There are countries that have more than one official language and, according to an undated chart by the American pro-English-only organization U.S. Language, there are 15 countries without any official language: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Eritrea, The Holy See, Luxembourg, San Marino, Sweden, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.[5] India officially recognizes 23 languages, the most of any country in the world.[8] However, in the plurinational state of Bolivia, Article 5-1 of the Constitution recognises 37 official languages (the first one is Spanish or Castellano, plus the native indigenous languages): "Son idiomas oficiales del Estado el castellano y todos los idiomas de las naciones y pueblos indígena originario campesinos, que son el aymara, araona, baure, bésiro, canichana, cavineño, cayubaba, chácobo, chimán, ese ejja, guaraní,guarasu'we, guarayu, itonama, leco, machajuyai-kallawaya, machineri, maropa, mojeño-trinitario, mojeño-ignaciano, moré,mosetén, movima, pacawara, puquina, quechua, sirionó, tacana, tapieté, toromona, uru-chipaya, weenhayek, yawanawa, yuki,yuracaré y zamuco. " [9]

Political alternatives

The selection of an official language (or no official language) is often contentious.[4] An alternative to a single official language is "official multilingualism" where a government recognizes multiple official languages. Under this system, all government services are available in all official languages. Each citizen may chose their preferred language when conducting business. Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, and the European Union are examples of official multilingualism systems. In all these areas the policy is considered controversial and in other areas where it has been proposed, the public has rejected the idea.[4]

In specific countries


Canadian advocates of a single official language say it promotes national identity.[10] In Canada, debate has focused on whether the local majority language should be made the exclusive language of public business. In the Canadian province of Quebec, for example, laws restrict the use of the minority English in education, on signs, and in the workplace.[4]

New Zealand

Official status can be used to give a language (often indigenous) a legal status even if that language is not widely spoken. For example, in New Zealand the Māori language and New Zealand Sign Language both have de jure official status under the Māori Language Act 1987 and New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006[11] respectively, even though Te Reo Māori is spoken by less than five percent of the New Zealand population, who predominantly speak English.[12] New Zealand thus has one de facto and two de jure official languages.[13]

South Africa

South Africa has eleven, mostly indigenous, official languages. Due to poor funding, however, the government rarely produces documents in most of the languages. Accusations of mismanagement and outright corruption are often leveled against the Pan South African Language Board, who is in charge of maintaining the system.[8]

United States

The pro-English-only website "U.S. English" sees a multilingual government as one in which its "services actually encourage the growth of linguistic enclaves...[and] contributes to racial and ethnic conflicts."[14] Opponents of an official language policy in the United States argue that it would hamper "the government's ability to reach out, communicate, and warn people in the event of a natural or man-made disaster such as a hurricane, pandemic, or...another terrorist attack."[15] Political professor Alan Patten says that disengagement – that is, officially ignoring the issue – works well in religious issues but is not possible with language issues. The government must offer public services in some language or another, and even if conscious effort is made not to establish an official language, a de facto official language, often called the "national language", will still emerge.[4] For example, in the United States, roughly two thirds of the population believes that English is the official language, despite the fact the country does not recognize any official language.[16]

In the United States, public debate during the last few decades has focused on whether Spanish should be recognized by the government, or whether all business should be done in English.[4] At the national level, the United States has no official language, but 27 US states have designated English the official language and courts have found that residents have no right to government services in their preferred language.[15]


In 2012, the debate over adopting Russian as a second official language in Ukraine caused "an all-out brawl in Parliament", widespread protest, and the resignation of a lawmaker in attempt to block the bill.[17]


Sometimes, an official language definition can be motivated more by national identity than by linguistic concerns. When Yugoslavia dissolved in 1991, the country had one official language called Serbo-Croatian. When Croatia broke away, it defined its official language as Croatian. Serbia likewise defined its official language as Serbian. Bosnia defined three official languages: Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. The different "languages" are mutually intelligible and linguists see them more as dialects than as distinct languages. Critics allege that the Bosnia government chose to define three languages to reinforce ethnic differences and keep the country divided.[18]

See also


Further reading

  • Writing Systems of the World: Alphabets, Syllabaries, Pictograms (1990), ISBN 0-8048-1654-9 — lists official languages of the countries of the world, among other information.

External links

  • The World Factbook
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