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Is Official Multilingualism a Contentious Option?

July 9, 2021


Official multilingualism happens when a country legally mandates multiple languages to be used for producing and delivering its official communications. According to Oxford Scholarship Online, it is political vision that is the main contributor to adopting "official multilingualism" and the process is driven more by pragmatic ideals than normative cultural forces. This is due to the semiotic flexibility that multilingualism provides, which can be helpful when pursuing a wide range of sociopolitical and economic goals.

Throughout history countries emerging from colonial rule would often use the former ruler’s language (especially their writing system) as the new government’s official language. In most cases, they also recognized one or more native tongues as national languages. Just as monolinguals can co-exist in the same jurisdiction that is officially multilingual, an officially monolingual country like France can actually have a much larger multilingual population who speak in their native tongue.

Countries Without an Official Language

You might be surprised to learn that some countries, such as the United States, do not have an official national language. From the middle of the eighteenth century to present day, Congress has been debating over whether to make English the official language of the United States of America. Several common language classifications are discussed below:

  • Native Language – The first language that someone learns from birth. A person’s native tongue is the language most often used in the individual’s learning of other target languages. It can be a person's primary language, too.
  • Official Language – An official language is legally recognized and may be indigenous. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for a country’s official language not to be the one that is most widely spoken by its residents.
  • De Facto Language – A de facto language is a national language that is not officially recognized but is spoken the most. In the United States, the de facto language is obviously English.
  • National Language – A national (or primary) language is a dominate language that is spoken at large in everyday situations. It can be native or learned as a useful second language by a population.

Interestingly, fifty eight countries have named English as an official language, but the United Kingdom and Australia join the United States as countries without an official national language. For many countries, the official national language is not spoken by the majority but is appointed an equal or greater legal status. Rather than being legally mandated, English achieved primary status in the United States through its usage. 

Speaking Out in the U.S.A.

Give or take an unexpected military coup, there are currently 178 countries that recognize an official language and one-hundred and one of those recognize more than one. Where some constitutional documents may name one or more national languages as an official language, the United States of America has no official language at the federal level. Even though official business and government documents are written and communicated in English, you can still hear more than three hundred native languages being spoken in the streets. While the federal government has been locked in a legislative debate over mandating an official language for centuries, more than half of its states have passed legislation making English that state’s official language. Naturally, given its "common use" status, English automatically qualifies as America’s de facto language and Spanish would rank second in that category.

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