Official language

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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 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.


According to an undated chart by the American pro-English-only organization U.S. Language, 178 countries in the world 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, Portuguese is the official language of seven countries and German is official in five.[5] The pro-English-only organization U.S. Language also states that 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.[6]

Political alternatives[edit]

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 choose their preferred language when conducting business. Canada, Philippines, Belgium, Switzerland, and the European Union are examples of official multilingualism systems. In almost all these areas the policy is controversial and in other areas where it has been proposed, the idea has been rejected.[4]

In specific countries[edit]


In accordance with the Constitution Act, 1982 the (federal) Government of Canada gives equal status to English and French as official languages. The provinces of Manitoba and New Brunswick are also officially bilingual, as are the territories (Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories), but all provinces offer some necessary services in both English and French.

Canadian advocates of a single official language say it promotes national identity.[7] 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[edit]

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[8] respectively, even though Te Reo Māori is spoken by less than five percent of the New Zealand population, who predominantly speak English.[9] New Zealand thus has three official languages.[10]


According to Constitution of Latvia, state language is Latvian. On 2012 there was initiative to hold referendum on amendments to the Constitution of Latvia, making Russian state language of Latvia also; proposed several constitutional amendments for introducing Russian as Latvia’s second official language—i.e., amendments to the Satversme’s Articles 4 (on Latvian as the state language), 18 (on the solemn promise of a member of Parliament to strengthen the Latvian language), 21 (on Latvian as the working language of the Parliament), 101 (on Latvian as the working language of local governments), and 104 (on the right to receive a reply to a petition in Latvian), since Article 4 of the Satversme alike norms of independence, democracy, sovereignty, territorial wholeness, and basic principles of elections that form the core of the Satversme (according to Article 77 of the Satversme), the initiative, in fact, proposed discontinuing an existing state and establishing a new one that is no longer a nation-state wherein Latvians exercise their rights to self-determination, enjoying and maintaining their cultural uniqueness.[11]

South Africa[edit]

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.[6]

United States[edit]

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.[12] 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]

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."[13] 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."[12] 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.[14]


In 2012, the debate over adopting Russian as a regional language in Ukraine caused "an all-out brawl in Parliament", protests, and the resignation of a lawmaker in attempt to block the bill.[15]


Sometimes, an official language definition can be motivated more by national identity than by linguistic concerns. When Yugoslavia dissolved in 1991, the country had three official languages: Serbo-Croatian, Slovene and Macedonian. Serbo-Croatian was used for mutual understanding and was also the language of the army. When Croatia broke away, it defined its official language as Croatian. Serbia likewise defined its official language as Serbian. Bosnia-Herzegovina 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 Bosnian government chose to define three languages to reinforce ethnic differences and keep the country divided.[16] The language used in Montenegro, traditionally considered a dialect of Serbian, became standardized as the Montenegrin language upon declaring independence.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Official Language", Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Ed. Tom McArthur, Oxford University Press, 1998.
  2. ^ The Status of Languages in Puerto Rico. Luis Muñiz-Arguelles. University of Puerto Rico. 1986. Page 466. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
  3. ^ 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).
  4. ^ a b c d e f Alan Patten (October 2011). "Political Theory and Language Policy" (pdf). Political Theory (Princeton) 29 (5): 691–715. Retrieved August 25, 2013. 
  5. ^ a b "Who has an official language?" (pdf). U.S. Language. Retrieved August 25, 2013. 
  6. ^ a b "Language in South Africa: An official mess". The Economist. July 5, 2013. Retrieved August 25, 2013. 
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006. New Zealand Legislation. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
  9. ^ NZ Sign Language to be third official language. Ruth Dyson. 2 April 2006. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
  10. ^ Statistics New Zealand:Language spoken (total responses) for the 1996–2006 censuses (Table 16).[dead link]
  11. ^ Jarinovska, K. "Popular Initiatives as Means of Altering the Core of the Republic of Latvia", Juridica International. Vol. 20, 2013. p. 152 ISSN1406-5509
  12. ^ a b James M. Inhofe; Cecilia Muñoz. "Should English be declared America's national language?". The New York Times upfront. Scholastic. Retrieved August 25, 2013. 
  13. ^ "Why Is Official English Necessary?". U.S. English. Retrieved August 26, 2013. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ David M. Herszenhorn (July 4, 2012). "Ukrainian Official Quits to Protest Russian-Language Bill". New York Times. Retrieved August 26, 2013. 
  16. ^ Selma Boračić; Ajdin Kamber (December 5, 2011). "Language Politics in Bosnia". Institute for War & Peace Reporting. Retrieved August 26, 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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[edit]