Which countries do not have an official language?

Kieran McGovern
ESOL Extras
Published in
3 min readFeb 5, 2018


Extended transcript below. Language Level: Upper intermediate/Advanced CERf C1

According to Henry Hitchings book Language Wars (2011) there are only eight nations which do not have an official primary language.

  • UK see here
  • USA though 20 states now have an official language — see here
  • Australia 80 % speak English but not official
  • Pakistan In 2015 Urdu was controversially made the official language
  • Ethiopia
  • Somalia
  • Eritrea
  • Costa Rica

Why choose not to have an official language?

Henry Hitchings outlines some key factors in Language Wars (2011)

a) Constitutional history/Cultural tradition

Perhaps surprisingly, the anglophone countries generally do not have English as an official language.

Majority English speaking countries in blue

58 countries have English as an official language — but not the UK, the USA or Australia. See here for the case of the UK and here for the USA.

The English language is a shared cultural heritage but not a defining feature of the nation state. Broadly speaking, English has achieved primary status through usage rather than coercion.

A similar pattern can be seen in the emergence of Globish — the form of English used as an international lingua franca.

b) Ethnic/Religious Tension
Language is often a factor in political rivalry between competing communities living in a single nation state. This can lead to political paralysis and ethnic tension — see Belgium, for example.

According to the Ethnologue, the area that once formed Ethiopia has 84 native languages. This may explain why the three neighbouring African countries: Ethiopia, Somalia & Eritrea have avoided giving one linguistic community privileged status.

Pakistan is a nation essentially created on religious grounds. It also contains a number of competing communities. Urdu is the de facto official language, but this arrangement is not formalised, as it is with its close cousin Hindi in India.

The majority populations of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia all speak variants of the same language. Unfortunately they do not agree what that language is called.

There had been various controversies and arguments regarding the name of the language. Bosnia neighboring Croats and Serbs call their languages Croatian and Serbian. While Montenegro officially acknowledges the Bosnian language in its 2007 Constitution together with Serbian, Croatian, and Albanian languages, Montenegrin remains the “official language”. The Dayton Peace Accord accredited the Bosnian as a different language spoken by Bosniaks Bosnia and Herzegovina. source

c) Protecting minority languages
Costa Rica does not have the obvious political tensions that usually makes language contentious. It has historically been the most stable democracy in Latin America. But though Spanish dominates, the Bribri, Maléku, Cabécar and Ngäbere languages are still spoken in indigenous reservations. Around 10.7% of Costa Rica’s adult population also speaks Creole-English.

New Zealand also promotes minority languages (Maori & New Zealand Sign Language) through official status. New Zealand Sign Language (with less than 25,000 speakers) is official while English, the mother tongue of 95.6% of the population, is not.

Sometimes protecting indigenous minority languages can produce strange anomalies. My parents went to school in the early years of Irish independence, a time when the political policy of the then Free State was to establish “austere national self-sufficiency in an Irish-speaking Ireland.” The practical upshot of this was they studied subjects like Chemistry in an unfamiliar second language (Gaelic).



Kieran McGovern
ESOL Extras

Author of Love by Design (Macmillan) & adaptations including Washington Square (OUP). Write about growing up in a Irish family in west London, music, all sorts