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When talking about languages, it’s often marked in how many countries they are the national or official language in. For example, English is an official language in 54 states. But very little attention is paid to correctly using the terms national and official language. They are often thought to mean the same thing but that is a false view, although certain overlap exists between these concepts.

National language

“National language” is probably the term that’s more commonly used when talking about a language which is spoken in a specific country.

Factually, however, the term “national language” simply means that there is some type of a connection between a territory and a language spoken there. Over 150 constitutions mention national languages but there is actually very little consistency in these terms. It’s as difficult to determine what’s a “national language” as it is to say what is a nation.

National language can mean that it is used in a specific region that may or may not coincide with the borders of a nation. It can be a tongue shared by a number of people (possibly citizens of a country), or it can be used as a communication tool between different groups within one nation. The last option is that a national language is the one used by the government in official business. This is the definition that is most often confused with the term “official language”.

Official language

Official language is a bit more of a precise term. It is used to refer to a language that is given specific legal standing. This can apply to the whole country or a specific area.

Most often, however, official languages are the ones that are used by the government. Since it’s almost impossible to regulate by law what language people use to communicate to each other, official languages are mostly related to the government of a country.

It refers to what languages are used in the courts and by the administrators of a country. Official languages are also the ones that are often expressly mentioned in constitutions and which serve a symbolic purpose. For example, in many African countries, the indigenous languages are often given official status to promote their use.

The difference and similarities of the concepts

So, in conclusion, national and official languages both deal with the status of languages on a certain territory. They are both legal categories that remain slightly badly defined, leading to confusion and overlap. Both are commonly determined in constitutions of countries.

In broad terms, national languages refer to the tongues spoken on a certain territory (usually a nation-state, but not always) by one or several groups of people. Official languages are the ones used by a region’s government for official purposes. It has more to do with day-to-day bureaucracy, although official languages can also be determined with the aim of promoting their use throughout the territory.

For example, Singapore has four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil, but only one of them is also the national language – Malay.


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