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A minority language is a language spoken by a minority of the population of a country. Such people are termed linguistic minorities. With a total number of 193 sovereign states recognized internationally (as of 2008) and an estimated number of roughly 5,000 to 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, it follows that the vast majority of languages are minority languages in every country in which they are spoken.
In Europe and in some other parts of the world, like in Canada, minority languages are often defined by legislation or constitutional documents and afforded some form of official support. The term, for example, appears in the Constitution of Canada in the heading above section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees minority language educational rights.
Some minority languages are simultaneously also official languages, including the Irish language (Gaelic) in the Republic of Ireland. Likewise, some national languages are often considered minority languages, insofar as they are the national language of a stateless nation.
Definition in international law
For the purposes of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages:
- "regional or minority languages" means languages that are:
- traditionally used within a given territory of a State by nationals of that State who form a group numerically smaller than the rest of the State's population; and
- different from the official language(s) of that State
Minority languages are occasionally marginalised within nations for a number of reasons. These include the small number of speakers, the decline in the number of speakers, and their occasional consideration as uncultured, primitive, or simple dialects when compared to the dominant language. They are also occasionally viewed as a threat, for example the recent resurgence of Celtic languages (Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish and Breton) are viewed by some to be support for separatism, thus as a threat to the political establishment. Immigrant minority languages are often also seen as a threat and as indicative of the non-integration of these communities. Both of these perceived threats are based on the notion of the exclusion of the majority language speakers. Often this is added to by political systems by not providing support (such as education and policing) in these languages.
Signed languages are often not recognized as true natural languages even though they are supported by extensive research. In the United States, for example, American Sign Language is the most used minority language yet almost the only minority language which lacks official government recognition.
Auxiliary languages have also struggled for recognition, perhaps partly because they are used primarily as second languages and have few native speakers.
Largest minority languages
The largest communities of speakers that of a language not recognized as a nation-wide official language anywhere:
- Javanese language: 80 million speakers, no official status
- Cantonese: 70 million speakers, regional status in Hong Kong and Macau
- Chinese dialects other than Mandarin and Cantonese: Min (70 million), Gan (some 50 million), Hakka (34 million), Xiang (30 million); see identification of the varieties of Chinese
- Sundanese language: 27 million speakers, regional status in West Java, Indonesia
- Cebuano language: 20 million speakers, regional status in Central Visayas
- Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo with close to 20 million speakers each are the major languages of Nigeria, all three with regional status, and neither with majority status.
- Uyghur language: 20 million speakers, regional status in Xinjiang
- Zhuang language: 14 million speakers, no official status
- Madurese language: 13 million speakers, no official status
- Berber languages: 10 million speakers, no official status
- Lombard language: 9 million speakers, also considered an Italian dialect
- Neapolitan language: 8 million speakers, also considered an Italian dialect
- Balochi language: 8 million speakers, regional status in Balochistan
- Ilokano language: 8 million speakers, regional status in Ilocos Region
- Hiligaynon language: 7 million speakers, regional status in Western Visayas
- Minangkabau language: 7 million speakers, no official status
- Bhili language: 6 million speakers, largest language of India without official status
- Yi language: 6 million speakers, no official status
- Hmong language: 4 million speakers, no official status
Linguistic communities that form no majority in any country, but whose language has the status of a national language in at least one country:
- Punjabi language: 110 million speakers, official status in Pakistan and India
- Marathi language: 90 million speakers, official status in India
- Tamil language: 70 million speakers, official status in India, Sri Lanka and Singapore
- Sindhi language: 60 million speakers, official status in Pakistan and India
- Gujarati language: 50 million speakers, official status in India
- Maithili language: 50 million speakers, official status in India
- Pashto language: 45 million speakers, official status in Afghanistan and Pakistan
- Kurdish language: 40 million speakers, official status in Iraq
- Malayalam language: 35 million speakers, official status in India
- Kannada language: 35 million speakers, official status in India
- Bhojpuri language: 35 million speakers, formerly considered a dialect of Hindi, in the process of being granted official status in India
- Oriya language: 30 million speakers, official status in India
- Oromo language: 25 million speakers, official status in Ethiopia and Kenya
- Tagalog language: 252 million speakers, official status in the Philippines as the Filipino language
- Fula language: 15 million speakers, official status in Guinea
- Afrikaans language: 13 first or second language speakers/16 million speakers with basic knowledge, official status in South Africa, recognized regional language in Namibia
- Assamese language: 13 million speakers, official status in India
- Quechua: 10 million speakers, official status in Bolivia and Peru
Linguistic communities whose language has the status of a national language in at least one country but lacks it in another countries:
- Kurdish language: official in Northern Iraq, but lacking official status in Turkey (more than 5 million speakers)
- Russian language: official in Russia, co-official in Belarus and Kazakhstan, lacking official status in Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia (more than 25% of population).
- Linguistic demography
- Minority group
- List of endangered languages
- Regional language
- European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages
- Language revival
- Indigenous language