While many countries in the world have one de facto official language, there are plenty of countries with multiple official languages. Canada, for example, has two official languages, Belgium has three, and South Africa has 11.
Since colonialism led to many countries in the world using a non-native de facto language, some multilingual countries have incorporated multiple official languages to recognize the indigenous languages spoken in the country.
Want to learn more about these multilingual countries? Keep reading to discover 5 fascinating facts about multilingual countries around the world.
#1. Papua New Guinea is the world’s most linguistically diverse country.
The Pacific Island nation of Papua New Guinea has three official languages – English, Tok Pisin, and Hiri Motu.
English is mainly used by the government for official purposes but Tok Pisin is the most commonly spoken language in the country. Tok Pisin is a creole language that evolved from a blending of English, German, Portugues, and certain Austronesian languages.
About 120,000 people speak Hiri Motu, mainly as a second language. Hiri Motu developed as a trading language in Port Moresby, the county’s capital.
In addition to these three official languages, Papua New Guinea is home to about 800 unique languages making it the most linguistically diverse country in the world.
#2. Bolivia holds the Guinness World Record for the country with the most official languages.
When Bolivia adopted its 2009 constitution, 37 languages were elevated to “official” status. Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua were considered official before the newest constitution. Now Spanish and 36 indigenous languages are recognized as official languages in Bolivia.
With this change, Bolivia became the country with the most official languages in the world and even holds a Guinness World Record for this record-setting achievement.
#3. Zimbabwe has 16 official languages.
Zimbabwe doesn’t hold the Guinness World Record, but with 16 official languages, it is still one of the most multilingual countries in the world.
English is primarily used by the government, media, and businesses but Shona and Ndebele are the most widely spoken as a first language. In addition to these three languages, Chewa, Chibarwe, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Shangani, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and sign language are all official in Zimbabwe.
#4. There is no official language in the US but some states have multiple official languages.
English is the de facto language in America but the United States doesn’t have an official language on the federal level.
Interestingly, a few US states have adopted official languages. English and 20 Alaska native languages are official in Alaska. Hawaiian and English are official in Hawaii and in South Dakota, O’ceti Sakowin and English are official.
#5. The Swiss People use four official languages.
German, French and Italian, and Romansh are the four official languages used in Switzerland. The four official languages were adopted to reflect the main languages spoken across the country’s different cantons (which are similar to states).
German is the most widely spoken language in Switzerland and most people don’t speak all four official languages. While it is not an official language, English is used in this multilingual country as a bridge between the different languages.
Learning about multilingual countries gives you the chance to understand the historic, political, and cultural forces that continue to shape how people communicate around the world.
Want to discover other fascinating language stories? Check out the ALTA Beyond Words Blog for more.
Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.
You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.