510: National Language

A Thousand Things to Talk About
510: National Language

Do you support the creation of an official national language?

Full episode script

There’s two terms intermixed here that, technically, have two different meanings. National languages are the traditional or generally understood languages that coincide with geographic areas or national groups. Those national groups do not always exactly match geopolitical borders. On the other hand, official languages are the legally sanctioned languages that government entities put in to place.

The World Economic Forum website reported in 2017 that, quote:

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. 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. 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.

In 2006, the UK’s Independent reported that the United States had voted to create an official national language. That report said, quote:

In a confusing debate passions ran high, with the Democratic minority leader Harry Reid labeling the amendment “racist”, and Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat of Hispanic ancestry, calling it “divisive and anti-American”. Not only does it overrule any claims to multilingual services, but the measure also stipulates rigorous testing to ensure would-be citizens have a sound knowledge of both the English language and US history.

But… maybe not. Politifact reported in 2007 that, quote:

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service has examined this question several times, most recently in January 2007. It concluded that designating English “official” or “national” would have no practical impact. An official designation alone would not cancel government programs, and although several pieces of legislation now pending in Congress would repeal some federal mandates on things such as non-English ballots, none of the bills would go so far as to prohibit governments from helping non-English speakers. A 2000 presidential executive order, signed by Bill Clinton, makes it federal policy that multilingual services are considered to be among the rights guaranteed in federal civil rights law.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.