Official language

An official language is a language having certain rights to be used in defined situations. These rights can be created in written form or by historic usage.[1][2]

Nations in which English is an official language (de facto or de jure). Anglosphere countries are those where English is the main native language.
  Official as a majority language
  Official as a minority language
  Co-official as a majority language
  Co-official as a minority language

178 countries recognize an official language, 101 of them recognizing more than one. The government of Italy made Italian official only in 1999,[3] and some nations (such as the United States, Mexico and Australia) have never declared de jure official languages at the national level.[4] Other nations have declared non-indigenous official languages.

Many of the world's constitutions mention one or more official or national languages.[5][6] Some countries use the official language designation to empower indigenous groups by giving them access to the government in their native languages. In countries that do not formally designate an official language, a de facto national language usually evolves. English is the most common official language, with recognized status in 51 countries. Arabic, French, and Spanish are also widely recognized.

An official language that is also an indigenous language is called endoglossic, one that is not indigenous is exoglossic.[7] An instance is Nigeria which has three endoglossic official languages. By this, the country aims to protect the indigenous languages although at the same time recognising the English language as its lingua franca. In spatial terms, indigenous (endoglossic) languages are mostly employed in the function of official (state) languages in Eurasia, while mainly non-indigenous (exoglossic) imperial (European) languages fulfill this function in most of the "Rest of the World" (that is, in Africa, the Americas, Australia and Oceania). Ethiopia, Somalia, South Africa, North African countries, Greenland, Tanzania, Samoa and Paraguay are among the exceptions to this tendency.[8]


Around 500 BC, when Darius the Great annexed Mesopotamia to the Persian Empire, he chose a form of the Aramaic language (the so-called Official Aramaic or Imperial Aramaic) as the vehicle for written communication between the different regions of the vast empire with its different peoples and languages. Aramaic script was widely employed from Egypt in the southwest to Bactria and Sogdiana in the northeast. Texts were dictated in the native dialects and written down in Aramaic, and then read out again in the native language at the places they were received.[9]

The First Emperor of Qin standardized the written language of China after unifying the country in 221 BC.[10] Classical Chinese would remain the standard written language for the next 2000 years. Standardization of the spoken language received less political attention, and Mandarin developed on an ad hoc basis from the dialects of the various imperial capitals until being officially standardized in the early twentieth century.


According to a dateless or anonymous chart by the American pro-English-only organization known as U.S. English, 178 countries have an official language at the national level. Among those, English is the most common with 67 nations giving it official status. French is second with 29 countries, Arabic is third with 26 countries and Spanish is fourth with 21 countries, Portuguese is the official language in 10 countries and German is official in 6.

Some countries—like Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States—have no official language recognized as such at a national level. On the other extreme, Bolivia officially recognizes 37 languages, the most of any country in the world. Second to Bolivia is India with 22 official languages. South Africa is the country with the third lead with 11 official languages that all have equal status;[11] Bolivia gives primacy to Spanish, and India gives primacy to English and Hindi.[12]

Political alternatives

The selection of an official language (or the lack thereof) is often contentious.[13] An alternative to having 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. Most countries are multilingual[14] and many are officially multilingual. Taiwan, Canada, the Philippines, Belgium, Switzerland, and the European Union are examples of official multilingualism. This has been described as controversial and, in some other areas where it has been proposed, the idea has been rejected.[13] It has also been described as necessary for the recognition of different groups[15] or as an advantage for the country in presenting itself to outsiders.[16]

Official languages by country and territory


Following Chapter 1, Article 16 of the Constitution of Afghanistan, the Afghan government gives equal status to Pashto and Dari as official languages.


English is the de facto national language of Australia, while Australia has no official language, English is the first language of the majority of the population, and has been entrenched as the de facto national language since European settlement, being the only language spoken in the home for 72% of Australians.[17]


After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the then Head of the State Sheikh Mujibur Rahman adopted the policy of 'one state one language'.[18] The de facto national language, Bengali, is the sole official language of Bangladesh according to the third article of the Constitution of Bangladesh.[19] The government of Bangladesh introduced the Bengali Language Implementation Act, 1987 to ensure the mandatory use of Bengali in all government affairs.[20]


Belarusian and Russian have official status in the Republic of Belarus.


Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French and German.[21]


Bulgarian is the sole official language in Bulgaria.[22]


Following the Constitution Act, 1982 the (federal) Government of Canada gives equal status to English and French as official languages. The Province of New Brunswick is also officially bilingual, as is Yukon. Nunavut has four official languages: English, French, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. The Northwest Territories has eleven official languages: Chipewyan/Dené, Cree, English, French, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey, and Tłı̨chǫ (Dogrib). All provinces, however, offer some necessary services in both English and French.

The Province of Quebec with the Official Language Act (Quebec) and Charter of the French Language defines French, the language of the majority of the population, as the official language of the provincial government.


Ethiopia has five official languages (Amharic alone until 2020) Amharic, Oromo, Somali, Tigrinya, and Afar, but Amharic is the de-facto sole official language which is used by the government for issuing driving licenses, business licenses, passport, and foreign diplomacy with the addition that Court documents are in Amharic, and the constitution is written in Amharic, making Amharic a higher official language in the country.[23]


According to the Finnish constitution, Finnish and Swedish are the official languages of the republic. Citizens have the right to communicate in either language with government agencies.


German is the official language of Germany. However, its minority languages include Sorbian (Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian), Romani, Danish and North Frisian, which are officially recognised. Migrant languages like Turkish, Russian and Spanish are widespread but are not officially recognised languages.

Hong Kong

According to the Basic Law of Hong Kong and the Official Languages Ordinance, both Chinese and English are the official languages of Hong Kong with equal status. The variety of Chinese is not stipulated; however, Cantonese, being the language most commonly used by the majority of Hongkongers, forms the de facto standard. Similarly, Traditional Chinese characters are most commonly used in Hong Kong and form the de facto standard for written Chinese, however, there is an increasing presence of Simplified Chinese characters particularly in areas related to tourism.[24] In government use, documents written using Traditional Chinese characters are authoritative over ones written with Simplified Chinese characters.[25]


Trilingual signboard in Odia, English and Hindi in Odisha state of India.

The Constitution of India (part 17) designates the official language of the Government of India as English as well as Standard Hindi written in the Devanagari script.[26]

The Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution lists has 22 languages,[27] which have been referred to as scheduled languages and given recognition, status and official encouragement. In addition, the Government of India has awarded the distinction of classical language to Tamil, Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Odia.


On 19 July 2018, the Knesset passed a basic law under the title Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which defines Hebrew as "the State's language" and Arabic as a language with "a special status in the State" (article 4). The law further says that it should not be interpreted as compromising the status of the Arabic language in practice before the enactment of the basic law, namely, it preserves the status quo and changes the status of Hebrew and Arabic only nominally.[28]

Before the enactment of the aforementioned basic law, the status of official language in Israel was determined by the 82nd paragraph of the "Palestine Order in Council" issued on 14 August 1922, for the British Mandate of Palestine, as amended in 1939:[29]

All Ordinances, official notices and official forms of the Government and all official notices of local authorities and municipalities in areas to be prescribed by order of the High Commissioner, shall be published in English, Arabic, and Hebrew."

This law, like most other laws of the British Mandate, was adopted in the State of Israel, subject to certain amendments published by the provisional legislative branch on 19 May 1948. The amendment states that:

"Any provision in the law requiring the use of the English language is repealed."[30]

In most public schools, the main teaching language is Hebrew, English is taught as a second language, and most students learn a third language, usually Arabic but not necessarily. Other public schools have Arabic as their main teaching language, and they teach Hebrew as a second language and English as a third one. There are also bilingual schools which aim to teach both Hebrew and Arabic equally.

Some languages other than Hebrew and Arabic, such as English, Russian, Amharic, Yiddish and Ladino enjoy a somewhat special status but are not official languages. For instance, at least 5% of the broadcasting time of privately-owned TV channels must be translated into Russian (a similar privilege is granted to Arabic), warnings must be translated to several languages, and signs are mostly trilingual (Hebrew, Arabic and English), and the government supports Yiddish and Ladino culture (alongside Hebrew culture and Arabic culture).


A former name sign on "Lenin Street" in the two official languages at the time of the 1945–1991 Soviet occupation of Latvia: Latvian (above) and Russian (below, in Cyrillic alphabet).

The Official Language Law recognizes Latvian as the sole official language of Latvia, while Latgalian is protected as "a historic variant of Latvian" and Livonian is recognized as "the language of the indigenous (autochthonous) population".[31] Latvia also provides national minority education programmes in Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Ukrainian, Estonian, Lithuanian, and Belarusian.[32] In 2012 there was a constitutional referendum on elevating Russian as a co-official language, but the proposal was rejected by nearly three-quarters of the voters.[33]


The official language of Malaysia is the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu), also known as Bahasa Malaysia or just Bahasa for short. Bahasa Melayu is being protected under Article 152 of the Constitution of Malaysia.


Dutch is the official language of the Netherlands (a constituent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands). In the province of Friesland, Frisian is the official second language. While Dutch is therefore the official language of the Caribbean Netherlands (the islands Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius), it is not any of the three islands’ main spoken language: Papiamento is the most often spoken language on Bonaire, while English is on both Saba and Sint Eustatius. These languages can be used in official documents (but do not have the same status as Frisian). Low Saxon and Limburgish, languages acknowledged by the European Charter, are spoken in specific regions of the Netherlands.[34]

New Zealand

New Zealand has three official languages. English is the de facto official language, accepted as such in all situations. The Māori language and New Zealand Sign Language both have restricted de jure official status under the Māori Language Act 1987 and New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006.[35][36]


The official language of Nigeria is English, which was chosen to facilitate the cultural and linguistic unity of the country. British colonial rule ended in 1960.



Urdu and English both are official languages in Pakistan. Pakistan has more than 60 other languages.


Polish is the official language of Poland.


Russian is the official language of the Russian Federation and in all federal subjects, however many minority languages have official status in the areas where they are indigenous. One type of federal subject in Russia, republics, are allowed to adopt additional official languages alongside Russian in their constitutions. Republics are often based around particular native ethnic groups and are often areas where ethnic Russians and native Russian-language speakers are a minority.

South Africa

South Africa has eleven official languages[11] that are mostly indigenous. Due to limited funding, however, the government rarely produces documents in most languages. Accusations of mismanagement and corruption have been leveled[37] against the Pan South African Language Board, established to promote multilingualism, develop the 11 official languages, and protect language rights in the country.[12]


The four national languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian and Romansh. At the federal level German, French and Italian are official languages, the official languages of individual cantons depend on the languages spoken in them.


Mandarin is the most common language used in government. After World War II the mainland Chinese-run government made Mandarin the official language, and it was used in the schools and government. Under the National languages development act, political participation can be conducted in any national language, which is defined as a "natural language used by an original people group of Taiwan",[38] which also includes Formosan languages, Hakka and Taiwanese Hokkien. According to Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, amendments were made to the Hakka Basic Act to make Hakka an official language of Taiwan.[39]


According to the constitution of Timor-Leste, Tetum and Portuguese are the official languages of the country, and every official document must be published in both languages, Indonesian and English hold "working language" status in the country.[40]


The official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian. The status of Russian as a regional language has caused significant political controversy.

United Kingdom

The de facto official language of the United Kingdom is English. In Wales, the Welsh language, spoken by approximately 20% of the population, has de jure official status, alongside English.[41][42]

United States

Map of US official language status by state before 2016. Blue: English declared the official language; light-blue: English declared a co-official language; gray: no official language specified.

English is the de facto national language of the United States. While there is no official language at the federal level, 32 of the 50 U.S. states[43] and all five inhabited U.S. territories have designated English as one, or the only, official language, while courts have found that residents in the 50 states do not have a right to government services in their preferred language.[44] Public debate in the last few decades has focused on whether Spanish should be recognized by the government, or whether all business should be done in English.[13]

California allows people to take their driving test in the following 32 languages: Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Croatian, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hmong, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Laotian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Samoan, Spanish, Tagalog/Filipino, Thai, Tongan, Turkish, and Vietnamese.[45]

New York state provides voter-registration forms in the following five languages: Bengali, Chinese, English, Korean and Spanish. The same languages are also on ballot papers in certain parts of the state (namely, New York City).[46]

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".[47] 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".[44] Professor of politics Alan Patten argues that disengagement (officially ignoring the issue) works well in religious issues but that it is not possible with language issues because it must offer public services in some language. Even if it makes a conscious effort not to establish an official language, a de facto official language, or the "national language", will nevertheless emerge.[13][48]


Sometimes an official language definition can be motivated more by national identity than by linguistic concerns. Before the 1991 Breakup, SFR Yugoslavia had four official languages—Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, Macedonian, and Slovene. Serbo-Croatian was used as a lingua franca for mutual understanding and was also the language of the military.

When Croatia declared independence in 1991, it defined its official language as Croatian, and Serbia likewise defined its official language as Serbian. Bosnia and Herzegovina defined three official languages: Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. From the linguistic point of view, the different names refer to national varieties of the same language, which is known under the appellation of Serbo-Croatian.[49][50][51] It is said by some that the Bosnian government chose to define three languages to reinforce ethnic differences and keep the country divided.[52] The language used in Montenegro, traditionally considered a dialect of Serbo-Croatian, became standardized as the Montenegrin language upon Montenegro's declaration of independence in 2006.

See also


  1. "Official Language", Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Ed. Tom McArthur, Oxford University Press, 1998.
  2. 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).
  3. "Legge 15 Dicembre 1999, n. 482 "Norme in materia di tutela delle minoranze linguistiche storiche" pubblicata nella Gazzetta Ufficiale n. 297 del 20 dicembre 1999". Italian Parliament. Archived from the original on 12 May 2015. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
  4. "FYI: English isn't the official language of the United States".
  5. "Read about "Official or national languages" on Constitute". Retrieved 2016-03-28.
  6. "L'aménagement linguistique dans le monde: page d'accueil". Retrieved 2016-03-28.
  7. endoglossic and exoglossic on
  8. Tomasz Kamusella. 2020. Global Language Politics: Eurasia versus the Rest (pp. 118–151). Journal of Nationalism, Memory & Language Politics. Vol 14, No 2.
  9. "ARAMAIC – Encyclopaedia Iranica". Retrieved 14 April 2018.
  10. Records of the Grand Historian, 6
  11. "Chapter 1, Article 6 of the South African Constitution". Retrieved 18 February 2018.
  12. "Language in South Africa: An official mess". The Economist. July 5, 2013. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
  13. Alan Patten (October 2011). "Political Theory and Language Policy" (PDF). Political Theory. 29 (5): 691–715. doi:10.1177/0090591701029005005. S2CID 143178621. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
  14. Follen, Charles; Mehring, Frank (2007-01-01). Between Natives and Foreigners: Selected Writings of Karl/Charles Follen (1796-1840). Peter Lang. ISBN 9780820497327.
  15. Laycock, David (2011-11-01). Representation and Democratic Theory. UBC Press. ISBN 9780774841009.
  16. Martin-Jones, Marilyn; Blackledge, Adrian; Creese, Angela (2012-01-01). The Routledge Handbook of Multilingualism. Routledge. ISBN 9780415496476.
  17. "2021 Australia, Census All persons QuickStats | Australian Bureau of Statistics".
  18. "English language teaching in Bangladesh today: Issues, outcomes and implications | Language Testing in Asia".
  19. "Article 3. The state language". The Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh. Ministry of Law, The People's Republic of Bangladesh. Retrieved 2019-05-15.
  20. "Bangla Bhasha Procholon Ain, 1987" বাংলা ভাষা প্রচলন আইন, ১৯৮৭ [Bengali Language Implementation Act, 1987]. Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs. Government of Bangladesh. Retrieved 2019-05-15.
  21. Belgium, a federal state: The communities
  22. Constitution of the Republic Bulgaria, article 3
  23. Shaban, Abdurahman. "One to five: Ethiopia gets four new federal working languages". Africa News.
  24. "War between Traditional and Simplified". anthony8988. 7 May 2014. Archived from the original on 2016-01-05.
  25. "Disclaimer and Copyright Notice". Legislative Council. Retrieved 25 May 2019.
  26. "Constitutional Provisions: Official Language Related Part-17 of The Constitution Of India". Department of Official Language, Government of India. Archived from the original on 1 February 2016. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
  27. Languages Included in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constution [sic] Archived 2016-06-04 at the Wayback Machine
  28. Halbfinger, David M.; Kershner, Isabel (19 July 2018). "Israeli Law Declares the Country the 'Nation-State of the Jewish People'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-07-24.
  29. The Palestine Gazette, No. 898 of 29 June 1939, Supplement 2, pp. 464–465.
  30. Law and Administration Ordinance No 1 of 5708—1948, clause 15(b). Official Gazette No. 1 of 5th Iyar, 5708; as per authorised translation in Laws of the State of Israel, Vol. I (1948) p. 10.
  31. "Official Language Law". Retrieved 9 January 2018.
  32. "Minority education: statistics and trends". Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia. 5 June 2018. Retrieved 9 January 2018.
  33. Language situation in Latvia: 2010–2015 (PDF). Latvian Language Agency. 2017. pp. 229–230. ISBN 978-9984-829-47-0.
  34. "Welke erkende talen heeft Nederland?". Ministerie van Binnenlandse Zaken en Koninkrijksrelaties. 11 January 2016.
  35. New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006. New Zealand Legislation. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
  36. NZ Sign Language to be third official language. Ruth Dyson. 2 April 2006. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
  37. Xaba, Vusi (2 September 2011). "Language board to be probed". Retrieved 28 February 2018.
  38. "國家語言發展法". (in Chinese). Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  39. languagehat (January 4, 2018). "HAKKA NOW AN OFFICIAL LANGUAGE OF TAIWAN". languagehat.
  40. Timor-Leste (2015). Constituição da República de Timor-Leste = Konstituisaun Repúblika Timor-Leste nian. Díli. ISBN 978-989-611-449-7. OCLC 951960238.
  41. "Welsh speakers by local authority, gender and detailed age groups, 2011 Census". 11 December 2012. Archived from the original on 16 June 2016. Retrieved 22 May 2016.
  42. "Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011". The National Archives. Retrieved 30 May 2016.
  43. - US English: West Virginia Becomes 32nd State to Adopt English as Official Language
  44. James M. Inhofe; Cecilia Muñoz. "Should English be declared America's national language?". The New York Times upfront. Scholastic. Archived from the original on February 19, 2015. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
  45. "Available Languages". California DMV. Retrieved November 26, 2014.
  46. "New York State Voter Registration Form" (PDF). New York State Board of Elections.
  47. "Why Is Official English Necessary?". U.S. English. Archived from the original on June 7, 2013. Retrieved August 26, 2013.
  48. 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.
  49. Mørk, Henning (2002). Serbokroatisk grammatik: substantivets morfologi [Serbo-Croatian Grammar: Noun Morphology]. Arbejdspapirer; vol. 1 (in Danish). Århus: Slavisk Institut, Århus Universitet. p. unpaginated (Preface). OCLC 471591123.
  50. Václav Blažek, "On the Internal Classification of Indo-European Languages: Survey" retrieved 20 Oct 2010, pp. 15–16.
  51. Kordić, Snježana (2007). "La langue croate, serbe, bosniaque et monténégrine" [Croatian, Serbian, Bosniakian, and Montenegrin] (PDF). In Madelain, Anne (ed.). Au sud de l'Est (PDF). vol. 3 (in French). Paris: Non Lieu. pp. 71–78. ISBN 978-2-35270-036-4. OCLC 182916790. Archived (PDF) from the original on 1 June 2012.
  52. Selma Boračić; Ajdin Kamber (December 5, 2011). "Language Politics in Bosnia". Institute for War & Peace Reporting. Retrieved August 26, 2013.

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.
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