Agile Governance

These countries have the most official languages

A boy holds a flag as South Africa's President Jacob Zuma addresses the National Youth Day commemoration, under the theme "The Year of OR Tambo: Advancing Youth Economic Empowerment", in Ventersdorp, South Africa June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko - RTS17CAO

South Africa has 11 languages – a number that could soon increase to 12 Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Maryam Munir
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Most countries have one or two official national languages, while a few including the United States and Mexico have none.

South Africa, however, has 11 – a number that could soon increase to 12 if the country’s parliament accepts a recommendation to give South African Sign Language official status.

Official languages have special legal status, and are the languages used within government. For multilingual nations particularly, it can be important to designate official languages at national level.

This indy100 map depicts the world by number of official languages.

Image: Indy100

India, with a population of over 1.3 billion, has 454 living languages and is one of the world’s most multilingual countries, according to a 2016 ranking by Ethnologue.

English and Hindi, which is spoken by 30% of the population, are the official languages at national level. However there are a total of 16 in India because states can also choose their own official languages.

By contrast, Mexico has no official language. Despite Spanish being the language of government and spoken by the majority of the population, it has not been given official status as there are also many indigenous languages.

Similarly, the United States does not have an official language. English is the de facto language of government and business, but many other languages are also commonly spoken, including Spanish, Chinese and French.

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Palau, an archipelago of more than 500 islands in the western Pacific Ocean, has five official languages – Palauan, English, Sonsorolese, Tobi and Angaur.

Countries with four official languages include Austria, Bahrain, Spain and Singapore, according to the Indy100, which used data from the CIA Factbook and InfoPlease.

English is the most widely used official language in the world, although perhaps surprisingly it does not have official status in the UK (Welsh is the UK's only official language) or Australia, where many indigenous and minority languages are also spoken.

French, Spanish and Arabic are also common official languages.

Image: The Washington Post
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