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June 2015

Multilingualism explored

Which countries have the most official languages?

As linguistic scholars, we know that languages help define a culture’s identity. In China, the official language is Mandarin. In England, the de facto language is English. But what about countries that are a mixture of ethnicities and cultures? In such melting pots, it’s not possible to have only one official language, lest an important segment of the population becomes marginalized. Today we’ll take a look at the countries with the most official languages, interesting places where various cultures converge to form a singular nationalistic identity.


Singapore has always been an anomaly in South Asia. Business minded and orderly, the culture is an amalgamation of various peoples. The country has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. A look at the city’s map will showcase various ethnic neighbourhoods from the Indian quarter to the Arab sector. Its diversity extends to its architecture, ranging from traditional housing in the ethnic neighborhoods to the futuristic skyscrapers in its main shopping center. Though not an official language, it’s also not uncommon to see Japanese on street signs as well.


Nestled between Germany, France, and Italy, Switzerland takes a bit from its neighbours to create its own identity. German, French, Italian, and Romansh (spoken mostly in the southeastern cantons of the country) are the country’s official languages. A trip back in time shows historic documents written in multiple languages (talk about time consuming). The cuisine of Switzerland draws from the various influences as well, from a heavy Italian presence to the prevalence of German foods like bratwurst.

South Africa

Although English is prevalent in South African media, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Swati, and Ndebele are also acknowledged by the government. Nelson Mandela's native tongue, Xhosa, is the most prominent of spoken languages in the country alongside Zulu. Visitors will find that many in South Africa are able to converse in multiple languages.


While India itself has two official languages (Hindi and English), each state within the country has its own official language. Some states even have several official languages. This means that Indians are able to converse in multiple languages, with fluency in as many as three or more local tongues. Combined, there are 23 official languages when accounting for each state and territory in India.

Alaska (United States)

While not a country, we distinguish Alaska from the United States because it hosts 20 additional official languages other than English. A bill signed by the state's governor in 2014 recognizes 20 indigenous languages as “official” in an effort to support the survival of Native American tongues. While purely symbolic, the important move celebrates the mixture of cultures within Alaska, while acknowledging the importance of the original inhabitants of the area. Sadly, one of the languages, Eyak, became extinct in 2008 with the death of its last fluent speaker. Here’s hoping the official status helps in preserving the other 19 languages.

Have you visited a country with more than one official language? What did you think? Let us know on our Facebook page and be sure to “like” TELC English for more language and culture articles!