One often hears the terms “national language” and “official language” when dealing with translation tasks. Are they one and the same? Should translators be aware when they translate which version or language they need to use, or is that something the client should specify when giving instructions for a translation task?

National and an Official Language

Generally, an official language is the language of government. There may, for historical and linguistic reasons, be more than one official language. In Canada, for example, there are two official languages, English and French. In many parts of Canada, government notices and information will be in both English and French, to reflect the importance of both languages, even though French is most used by Canadians in Quebec, while English tends to predominate elsewhere. In New Zealand, both Maori and English are recognised as official languages, despite the fact that the use of Maori has been declining now for many decades.

Many countries have only one official language, though. The official language of Australia, for example, is just English, even though there were many indigenous languages used widely in Australia before British colonization and there are many different languages spoken by minority groups in Australia, reflecting a diverse source of migration.

A national language is a language that has historical and cultural significance in that country. It is often, but not always, the same as the official language. In some countries, like Australia, there is no national language. This is partly because when colonists first arrived in what we now call Australia, there were so many different indigenous languages, often mutually unintelligible, that it was impossible to select one that truly represented the indigenous population, past and present.

The difference between a national language and an official language is well illustrated by the island state of Singapore. Singapore has four official languages which are English, Chinese, Malay, and Hindi. English represents the historical colonial link with Britain and the other three languages belong to the three main ethnic groups in Singapore. All four languages are used by the government of Singapore, but only one, Malay, is the national language. This has been chosen because it is the language used by the first people to reside on the island before the arrival of British colonial influence.