Official languages are pretty standard around the world today. While the exact role they play differs from country to country, an official language is generally just the language of the government. All it means is that official documents and official business are done in that particular language (or languages, when there’s more than one). Official languages are usually the ones spoken by the majority of people of a country, but that’s not always the case.
Looking at the most common official languages around the world, the disconnect between the languages of governments and the languages of the people becomes clear. Here are the 11 most common official languages, and a little discussion as to why they’re on the list.
De Facto Vs. De Jure
First, a quick note on nomenclature. Official languages can be “de facto” and “de jure.” De jure means that there is a law that makes a language official. The official language of Germany is German, for example, and that’s a legal fact.
If an official language is de facto, however, that means it’s the one used by the government in spite of there being no legal law about the official language. The United States, for example, doesn’t have an official language, but English is spoken by the majority of the population and is part of anything official the government does. There are pushes to make English the de jure official language, though this probably wouldn’t make much of a difference in how the government is run.
To complicate things further, there are regional languages (widely spoken in one part of a country) and minority languages (not spoken by the majority of the country, but given special recognition by the government). For the purposes of this article, we are focusing only on official languages used throughout each country, and we’re counting both de jure and de facto official languages.
The 11 Most Common Official Languages
1. English — 60 Countries
Where It’s Official: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Cook Islands, Dominica, Eswatini, Fiji, The Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Malta, the Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Federated States of Micronesia, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Niue, Pakistan, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, the United Kingdom, the United States, Vanuatu, Zambia, and Zimbabwe
When counting both native and non-native speakers, English is the most-spoken language in the world. It’s not too surprising that English would be the most common official language, then. And yet, the two figures aren’t necessarily related. Mandarin Chinese is the second most-spoken language, but it’s only an official language in a handful of countries. Also, some of the countries where English is an official language have hardly any English speakers.
English’s status is more a reflection of the British and American empires. Most of the countries where English is an official language were once controlled by the United Kingdom or the United States. In some, English was forcibly imposed on entire populations, while in others it only became the language of the government.
The dominance of English continues because of its role as a lingua franca. Even in countries that rejected English rule decades or centuries ago, the English language opens doors to participation in the larger global marketplace.
2. French — 29 Countries
Where It’s Official: Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, Central African Republic, Comoros, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, France, Gabon, Guinea, Haiti, the Ivory Coast, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Monaco, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Switzerland, Togo, and Vanuatu
Like English, the French language was spread through colonization, particularly in Africa, where 21 of the 29 countries are located. Africa is home to more French speakers than any other continent, and the population continues to grow there, though France is no longer in control of any countries.
French is one of the official languages of many governing bodies, including the European Union, the United Nations and NATO (though it’s often second to English). The one place that united French-speaking nations is the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, an organization with 88 member governments that represent the Francophone world. With the French language as a common starting point, the goal of the organization is to promote culture, peace and education around the world.
3. Arabic — 23 Countries
Where It’s Official: Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen
The Arabic language is far more geographically concentrated than English and French. All of the countries with Arabic as an official language are in northern Africa or the Arabian Peninsula. Its spread was spurred by the Early Islam Conquests, dating back to the seventh century CE. There are certainly Arabic speakers all over the world, but the majority live in this large region.
While there are several different dialects across the region, Arabic acts as a lingua franca for the Arab world. All of the countries that have Arabic as an official language are members or observers of the Arab League, an international organization that unites the countries diplomatically and culturally.
4. Spanish — 20 Countries
Where It’s Official: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Spain, Uruguay, and Venezuela
Spain is often treated as the cultural home of Spanish because of the name, but the vast majority of Spanish speakers live in the Americas. Only two countries outside of the Americas have Spanish as an official language: Spain and Equatorial Guinea. The spread of Spanish in the Americas is part of the colonization that started with Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean.
Spanish is one of the most-spoken languages, and can be found in other countries around the world. The United States is home to 43 million speakers, for example.
5. Portuguese — 10 Countries
Where It’s Official: Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Macau, Mozambique, Portugal, and São Tomé and Príncipe
Portuguese is spread far across the world, being an official language in six African countries, one South American country, one Asian country, one European country and one Oceanian country (if you count East Timor as part of Oceania). All of them were formerly Portuguese colonies, except Portugal.
All of these countries are also part of Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa, or the Community of Portuguese Language Countries, which was founded in 1996 as a way to unite the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) world. Beyond those with Portuguese as an official language, there are 31 other observer countries who are home to a significant Portuguese-speaking population.
6. German — 6 Countries
Where It’s Official: Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland
German is the first language on this list where every country that has it as an official language is in the same continent: Europe. Almost every country borders Germany except for Liechtenstein, which is fully surrounded by Switzerland and Austria.
The reason for this is not that Germany didn’t participate in the same kind of colonization as other European countries — it certainly did — but that it had all of its territories taken away after World War I. Rather than return home rule, Europe split up the territories among other countries, so other European languages were put in place. Because of this, German is more widely spoken than its placement on this list would make it seem.
7. Russian — 5 Countries (Tied)
Where It’s Official: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan
Russian is an official language of Russia and nearby countries, but that understates how widespread the language is. It’s the most common native language in Europe, and the eighth most-spoken language in the world. While most Russian speakers live in Russia, there are sizable populations in Ukraine, Belarus, Turkey, Estonia (a former colony of Russia) and other countries.
7. Swahili — 5 Countries (Tied)
Where It’s Official: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda
The language of Swahili, originally spoken by the Swahili people, is used in many parts of East and South Africa. It has acted as a lingua franca on the continent, which is why there are 16 million native speakers, but over 52 million non-native speakers.
In addition to the above countries, Swahili is an official language of the East African Community countries, the African Union and the Southern African Development Community. While it’s only one of thousands of languages that originated in Africa, it’s become an important part of inter-governmental communication.
9. Malay — 4 Countries (Tied)
Where It’s Official: Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore
The Malay language is spoken throughout the Malay archipelago, being used as a lingua franca for the region as far back as the 15th century. Of the three languages tied for last place here, it’s by far the most spoken, with over 290 million speakers. It’s also an incredibly diverse language, with many different dialects. Most speakers use a variety of the language called Indonesian (which, as you can guess, is the standard variety of Indonesia).
Malay could be considered a macrolanguage with many languages that fall under its umbrella, or as a language with many dialects. Judging the difference between these two possibilities is not an exact science, but for the purposes of this list, we’re choosing the latter.
9. Serbo-Croatian — 4 Countries (Tied)
Where It’s Official: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia
The addition of Serbo-Croatian to this list is perhaps more controversial than any of the others. The four countries who have Serbo-Croatian as an official language have a complex history, having been part of Yugoslavia until 1992. At that point, the region split along nationalistic lines, and some have argued that each country has its own language: Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian. Others, however, say that they’re nearly identical, and so should be united under one name.
9. Italian — 4 Countries (Tied)
Where It’s Official: Italy, San Marino, Switzerland, and the Vatican
Italian sneaks onto this list thanks to two landlocked countries that are located inside of Italy: the Vatican, the small country in the middle of Rome that is home to the Catholic Church, and San Marino, a microstate in central Italy. It’s also given official status in neighboring Switzerland, which also bestows officialdom on German, French and Romansh.
Like Germany, Italy also once had a larger empire as a result of colonization (though it got a later start than many European countries). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were a few African countries under Italy’s control. The empire was short-lived, however, with Italy ceding its territories to the Allies during World War II after Benito Mussolini was removed from power.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article erroneously referred to Estonia as a country in Africa. We regret the error.