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. Since "the means of expression of a people cannot be changed by any law", the term "official language" does not typically refer to the language used by a people or country, but by its government.
The choice of an official language or languages (or the choice not to have any official language) is often a contentious issue. 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. 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. Chinese, the world's most common first language with 1.2 billion native speakers, has official status in just two countries. Swahili has official status in four countries despite being the first language of fewer than 800,000 people. Javanese, spoken by 84 million people natively, is the most common language with no official status in any country.
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. India officially recognizes 23 languages, the most of any country in the world. 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. " 
The selection of an official language (or no official language) is often contentious. 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.
In specific countries
Canadian advocates of a single official language say it promotes national identity. 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.
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 respectively, even though Te Reo Māori is spoken by less than five percent of the New Zealand population, who predominantly speak English. New Zealand thus has one de facto and two de jure official languages.[dead link]
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.
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." 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." 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
- List of official languages by state
- List of official languages by institution
- List of languages without official status
- Minority language
- "Official Language", Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Ed. Tom McArthur, Oxford University Press, 1998.
- The Status of Languages in Puerto Rico. Luis Muñiz-Arguelles. University of Puerto Rico. 1986. Page 466. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
- Pueblo v. Tribunal Superior, 92 D.P.R. 596 (1965). Translation taken from the English text, 92 P.R.R. 580 (1965), p. 588-589. See also LOPEZ-BARALT NEGRON, "Pueblo v. Tribunal Superior: Español: Idioma del proceso judicial", 36 Revista Juridica de la Universidad de Puerto Rico. 396 (1967), and VIENTOS-GASTON, "Informe del Procurador General sobre el idioma", 36 Rev. Col. Ab. (P.R.) 843 (1975).
- Alan Patten (October 2011). "Political Theory and Language Policy" (pdf). Political Theory (Princeton) 29 (5): 691–715. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
- "Who has an official language?" (pdf). U.S. Language. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
- "The Most Common Official Languages in the World". The Basement Geographer. March 21, 2011. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
- "Summary by language size". Ethnologue. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
- "Language in South Africa: An official mess". The Economist. July 5, 2013. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
- see article "Bolivia" from Wikipedia, at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bolivia .
- Official Languages at the Heart of Our Identity: An overview of the Official Languages Act. Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. Ottowa, Canada. Retrieved 26 August 2013.
- New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006. New Zealand Legislation. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
- NZ Sign Language to be third official language. Ruth Dyson. 2 April 2006. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
- Statistics New Zealand:Language spoken (total responses) for the 1996–2006 censuses (Table 16).
- "Why Is Official English Necessary?". U.S. English. Retrieved August 26, 2013.
- James M. Inhofe; Cecilia Muñoz. "Should English be declared America's national language?". The New York Times upfront. Scholastic. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
- James Crawford. "Language Freedom and Restriction: A Historical Approach to the Official Language Controversy". Effective Language Education Practices and Native Language Survival. pp. 9–22. Retrieved August 26, 2013.
- David M. Herszenhorn (July 4, 2012). "Ukrainian Official Quits to Protest Russian-Language Bill". New York Times. Retrieved August 26, 2013.
- Selma Boračić; Ajdin Kamber (December 5, 2011). "Language Politics in Bosnia". Institute for War & Peace Reporting. Retrieved August 26, 2013.
- 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.