We commonly describe a national language as – A language that may be widely used throughout a nation and represents a state's socio-cultural and socio-political identity. Alternatively, the description of an official language sounds like – A legally accepted language of an independent state for officiating legal, business, and formal communication. There are two things to consider about these definitions; first, there are varied definitions and uses of 'national language' and 'official language'. Second, a single language can have dual functions, i.e., a national language can function as the official language as well.
The idea of a national language or an official language sparks debates, disagreements, and unrest amongst communities. The reason lies in the central role of language within the cultural, social, and economic spheres of human existence. Language is the scepter of social behavior. It dictates what, how, when, and where we communicate. And our purposes, culture, and behavior, in turn, modify the language. The declaration of a national or official language creates an imbalance in a society where several languages and dialects co-exist. People become obligated to learn a second language, which affects proficiency and creates areas of marginalization within institutions.
Thus, National languages and Official languages often face allegations of hegemony and oppression. Government bodies across nations make it a point to declare the scope and meaning of National Languages and Official Languages. Several reasons, in the opinion of governments, justify these declarations. National Languages are responsible for socio-cultural reasons, such as unification, identity, and culture. In contrast, official languages are accountable for utility, economics, and numbers.
The difference lies in the functionality of these ideas. People in political spheres use the idea of a national language to propagate ideas of unification and common roots. People working in bureaucracy, judiciary, and financial spheres love the idea of an official language due to its utility.
Socio-political spheres of a nation use national languages to represent identity and culture. Languages are legally declared official in legal, economic, and educational spheres. National and official language spark debates surrounding inclusion, identity, and marginalization, yet it is a common phenomenon observed in the nations. As a result, linguistic politics becomes an integral part of the discussion. Linguistic scholars also study the differences in the kind of drawbacks each display. Naturally, national languages create an identity and political issues, whereas official languages create economic hierarchy.
Our understanding of national and official languages does not form its foundations in a clear definition. Defining languages becomes problematic because we are trying to label something both personal and universal. But these words, "national" and "official", represent different ideas. These ideas will form the basis of our discussion.
National language vs. Official Language
A national language relates to the political, social, and cultural ideas of a nation. An official language is a legally accepted medium for communication and documentation within established government institutions of a country.
Differences Between National Language and Official Language in Tabular form
|Parameters of Comparison||National Language||Official Language|
|Legality||The status, may or may not be legally declared.||The status is legally declared|
|Symbolism||It is symbolic of unique and united culture, identity, and society.||It is symbolic of a formal, uniform, and effective means of communication|
|Ideas||Political ideas, social cohesion, civic approval||Economic ideas, legal connections, administrative approval.|
|Fields of operation||Social, political, day-to-day communication, connection to roots, understanding of culture.||Courts, parliaments, executive bodies, formal communication, education.|
Minorities feel neglected, under-represented, and socially marginalized.
Creates ambiguity between cultural identity as minority groups feel forced to learn a second language in order to associate with their mother land.
Minorities face lack of opportunities within spaces using the official language.
Creates hierarchy based on proficiency of the official language.
|Politics||May become politically charged||Comparatively neutral, but may face similar problems.|
What is a National Language?
We have already seen how a language declared as 'national' ideates the relationship between social and cultural identity. Societal mannerisms and communication intertwine with the formation of a language itself. National languages can be a result of the following factors: -
- A majority in a region speaks a particular language.
- The language has a rich historical and cultural background.
- A small yet elite group of people in an area use a specific language.
Social mannerisms and behavior form the basis of civic power. Politicians wanting to leverage this power use the formation of national languages to appeal to a majority. Sometimes glorification of history and values associated with the language achieve a similar mass appeal. At times, a language used by a powerful group attracts the awe of the masses.
A national language achieves its status when a majority approves. The approval can come from common usage, shared history, or induced aspiration. Since this language forms the basis for communication and the formation of ideas, a national language thus becomes a medium for representing cultural and political ideas. A large number of people associate an identity with the language. Governments, elected or otherwise, try to present a cohesive set of national principles and philosophy to their citizens and the world, and they do so through the national language. The word "national" aligns itself with the ideas of unity, fraternity, and collectivity. Similarly, national languages seek to bring the people together, especially in countries with linguistic diversity.
When a majority of an independent state uses and accepts a language or languages, they create a national language de facto. It means there is no legal status but acts as a national language. English is the National language of America by default. Some national languages are declared legally and are known as de-jure national languages. But that is not to be confused. A country may choose different languages as national and official languages. Each may have different scopes of operation decided by the governments dealing with varied multilingual problems.
In a country with a population using several languages, the formation or declaration of a national language becomes problematic. Despite the best intentions, people who speak a language different from the national language feel excluded and underrepresented. Minority groups believe that the right to expression in a language of choice is a human right. And, that it is unjust to force them learn a new language, associate with a separate culture and lose their individual identity in order to associate with the national identity. The discontentment gives rise to political, communal, and sometimes civil unrest. Some believe that these violent actions threaten the very freedom that the minority groups seek by making space for foreigners to take advantage of the internal situation of a nation. Thus, the idea of a national language becomes politically charged in situations like these.
What is an Official Language?
Compared to the national language, the official language is better defined. Official language can be any particular language in use within an institution for mediating communication and documentation. An Official language always places itself legally within a nation. There can be one or more official languages within courts, parliaments, bureaucracy, and education. But all of them have the same purpose, to effectively communicate and record procedures within the government institutions.
The choice of an official language may depend on the following reasons; The language is a default due to colonization, common usage, or histories like conquest or trade centers. Issuing authority is pivotal when it comes to the formation of an official language. In the current world, most official languages of a nation are a consequence of their colonial heritage. For example, alongside regional languages, English and French remain the official language of many countries. Globalization, and migrating populations looking for a lingua franca-common language between speakers of separate tongues- tend to choose English as their official language. In Singapore, Mandarin Chinese became one of four official languages because of its history as a trade center.
There is an emphasis on the written form of the official language. Dictionaries, academic debates, and the approval of powerful institutions propagate the usage of a uniform dialect of the official language. The functionality of such formality remains the main argument for declaring an official language. For example, the financial and economic advantages of learning English for international trade are undeniable at times. Global economies, migrating populations, and global markets have created the need for an official language. And changing such imbalances in the use of a particular language is usually a long and challenging process. People with different mother tongues find themselves learning a second language to meet the demands of the official procedures. Levels of proficiency in the official language become a criterion for hierarchy within institutions affecting opportunities, loss of culture, and identity. Since an official language is perceived to be objective and practical, the oppression often goes unnoticed. To overcome this problem, minority groups in India aimed to achieve official status to protect their languages and cultures. Thus, India has 22 languages listed as official to contain the discontentment in a greatly diverse country. Despite these problems, governments and people consider the “official” status as neutral. Because the ideas associated official languages clearly declare that it is meant for efficacy and not oppression. As a result, the chances of an official language to become politically charge reduces to an great extent.
Main Differences Between National Language and Official Language in Points
- National Languages are a symbol of identity and culture. Whereas official languages are for formal communication within government establishments.
- National languages need not be legally declared. E.g., Japanese in Japan. But sometimes they are legally defined separate from official languages by the law. Governments take a more neutral approach of declaring a legal, official language. E.g., Tamil, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and English declared as official languages of Singapore.
- National language represents the community and togetherness. Official language represents uniformity and functionality.
- Politicians use identification, shared history and elitist appeal to establish a national language. Established authorities, language experts play a major role in deciding an official language.
- In the face of globalization national language creates unique identity for the nation and its culture. Whereas, official languages help in keeping up with the rapid changes in technology and markets of globalization.
- Identification of a particular National languages by help migrants establish and remain connected to the roots in foreign lands. Official languages help in establishing diplomatic, trade and humanitarian communication between nations.
- Languages declared as national languages sideline other tongues that creates the problem of representation in a nation. Minority groups feel overtly marginalized and un-recognized. Comparatively, official languages create covert hierarchy based on proficiency in a particular language.
- Discontentment surrounding national languages can escalate into political issues. But unlike national languages official languages stand for neutrality and functionality. There are fewer instances of official languages becoming political issues.
The national and official languages entail varied meanings for different countries. So, looking for exact features that differentiate the two becomes a complicated process. Socio-linguists believe the difference lies in the ideas of the two types of languages. The national language represents the cohesive cultural and political identity of an independent nation. Whereas, official languages represent economic and official functionality. The ideas that national represents causes politically charged discontentment amongst people who speak a different language in a diverse nation. People feel forced to speak and accept another language, without any reciprocation. Is it necessary to learn a different language and give up on our roots simply to be accepted as a part of a nation? On the other hand, official languages create gaps in professional fields. There is an economic disparity seen between people who are more proficient in the official language and people who do not speak the official language or languages. Globalization, cross-nation trading, and mixed economies bring forth rapid changes in technology, lifestyle, and livelihoods. In this everchanging world, the idea of a National Language helps people stay connected to their identities and acknowledge their roots. It also helps in creating a united and unique identity for the nation. On the other hand, the use of official languages keeps up with the rapid changes of globalization and creates space for effective communication with the people of the world.
- Conrad Max Benedict Brann. “Democratisation of Language Use in Public Domains in Nigeria.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 31, no. 4 (1993): 639–56. http://www.jstor.org/stable/161295.