The Most Common Official Languages in the World

This can be a murky subject, so here are some qualifiers for this list. Results were compiled from the 193 widely-recognised sovereign states as well as the 10 de facto independent states not commonly recognised around the world. Only languages officially designated by the national government as ‘official’ or ‘national’across the country are included, except in cases where there is no language designated by government (e.g. the United States and the United Kingdom), in which case the de facto language(s) used by the national government are included. As the official definition of what constitutes a distinct language can be more political than linguistic (see Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian), and as some languages that are the same from a literary standpoint can vary quite widely when spoken to the point of mutual unintelligibility (e.g. Moroccan Arabic versus Iraqi Arabic, or Milanese Italian versus Sicilian), this list should be considered as a ‘line of best fit’ rather than definitive. Data on the number of native speakers come from the most recent estimates as published in Ethnologue: Languages of the World; one would expect many of the actual numbers to be slightly larger than listed.

The table was originally to include the number of total speakers in order to reflect the numbers of people who speak multiple languages, but I could not find a source that was consistently reliable enough to make it worth pursuing for this article (just look at the minefield that is the Wikipedia article on this subject). However, that actually led me into a new direction: looking at what languages have a disproportionately large (or small) level of native usage internationally compared to the actual amount of native speakers. Obviously languages such as English, French and Arabic have huge international reach and are often used for interethnic communication in plurinational states, but how many people actually use those languages in the home?

Below, then, is a list of languages which have official national de jure and de facto in more than one country.

languagetable

In total, just 27 languages (31 if you include unrecognised states) enjoy recognition in multiple countries, and only 11 (14) in three or more countries. Unsurprisingly, the top two official languages are English (55, or 56 if you include Somaliland) and French (29), owing mostly to their huge colonial legacies. What’s rather interesting is just how few people outside of France have taken up French as the primary everyday language of choice. While Africa, for example, is well-covered by countries where French is the language of government, household use is low. Arabic is not far behind France at all in third. What’s interesting about Arabic is that, with the exception of the Comoros, the countries that recognise it nationally are grouped together in a giant cluster.

Arabic_Language

The cluster of countries employing Arabic as an official language (in blue).

The last of the top four is Spanish, with 20 (or 21 with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), primarily distributed in Latin America in another cluster of countries. Spanish and Arabic are the rule, not the exception. Other than English, French, fifth-place Portuguese, Dutch, and Tamil, every language on this list forms some sort of cluster encompassing all of the countries that recognise it.

With regard to disproportionate influence versus the number of native speakers, Swahili easily takes the top spot. I was taken aback when I saw Ethnologue‘s figure of just over 787 000, knowing that it operates as the lingua franca of much of East Africa. According to Ethnologue, that’s exactly the point: it’s a second language for tens of millions of people from disparate ethnic groups who use it to communicate with each other, making it an attractive candidate for conducting government business alongside English (the other main lingua franca of the region).

Other items that struck me:

-Slovak is still denoted as an official language of the Czech Republic, but Czech is not an official language in Slovakia. Both are considered mutually intelligible.

-Malay, Sotho-Tswana and Persian are official languages in three different countries under three different names. Serbo-Croatian is the champion in that field, though, with four different names in four different countries. One would expect the various dialects to diverge over time until they separate completely, such as Dutch and Afrikaans, or Hindustani and Fiji Hindi.

-‘Berber’ is officially recognised as a ‘national’ language in Algeria and Morocco, which is kind of like recognising ‘First Nations’ as a language in Canada, or ‘Aboriginal’ as a language in Australia since there are so many different languages spoken by Berber peoples.

-The most widely-spoken language without official status in any country is Javanese (84 300 000).

Further Reading

Central Intelligence Agency (2011). Field Listing: Languages. The World Factbook. Available at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2098.html?countryName=Afghanistan&countryCode;=af&regionCode;=sas&#af. Accessed 15 March 2011.

Lewis, M.P. (ed.) 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World (16th ed.). Dallas: SIL International. Available at http://www.ethnologue.com/. Accessed 16 March 2011.

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3 thoughts on “The Most Common Official Languages in the World


  • What's rather interesting is just how few people outside of France have taken up French as the primary everyday language of choice. While Africa, for example, is well-covered by countries where French is the language of government, household use is low.

    That's true for English, to a considerable extent. Spanish and Arabic seem to fare better, being the everyday languages in most of the countries in which they're the official languages.

    Peter


  • Most definitely. Spanish and Arabic colonists managed to integrate themselves into native populations much more effectively than those of the UK and France, who tended to be more aloof (especially in Africa). Of course, once you get into second and third languages, then it's no contest in favour of English (which can be a good thing and a bad thing: http://www.economist.com/node/883997?Story_ID=883997).

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