How does the official language coexist with native languages?

Speakers of native languages try to keep their culture alive alongside official languages that facilitate global communication
Thalita Lima
9 min
Table of Contents

One of the human language beauties is the dynamicity and its cultural crossings. In most countries around the world, people have to live in a melting pot of languages. Official languages coexist with the native ones – and it must also have space for immigrant languages constantly integrating. 

But what’s the difference between native and official language and how do they coexist in the same region?

A Native Language, also known as mother tongue, is the first language a person is exposed to in life, generally in childhood or youth. The process of learning is made through interaction with other native speakers and involves intuition more than mastery of grammar. 

On the other hand, the official language is connected with political aspects. It’s the majority language in a country, used for business, local commerce, studies and official documents. For instance, English is the official language in England, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa as Spanish is the official language in Spain, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Argentina etc.  

The importance of a Mother Tongue

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The importance of a mother language is that it brings identity. In several countries, mother language is used to indicate the language of one's ethnic group

Native speakers may not know how to explain why they put the verb in a certain position, but they will feel by intuition this is the correct form. That’s why native speakers are an authority over the language due to the natural process of language acquisition, compared to those who learn the language as adults or later in life.

Children who grow up speaking their mother language and another official language are bilingual or multilingual from an early age. Coexistence of both is very useful to develop linguistic intelligence and represents a differential in social life.  

This is so valuable that UNESCO designated 21 February as International Mother Language Day.

Multiple Languages in African countries

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Africa currently is home to approximately one-third of the world's languages, with anywhere between 1000 and 2000 languages. At least 75 of them have more than one million speakers. There are 4 main families of African languages: Niger-Congo (swahili, yoruba, fula, igbo), Nilo-Saharan (occupies Eastern Africa and the North Eastern region), Afroasiatic (mainly in northern regions) and Khoisan (Southern Africa).

After African countries became independent in the 20th century, many countries had to keep the language of their colonizers as the official language because they still relied on the colonizers for politics and business.

Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Cameroon use English as their official language. Portuguese is the official language in “PALOP” countries (acronym in Portuguese for Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa) including Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe. Meanwhile, French is official in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, Benin, Senegal, and a few others.

Due to the bitter memories of wars and oppression, African people live with both European languages and their native languages, but there are disagreements.

Recent events show conflicts between languages in Africa. For instance, Mali stopped using French as its official language in 2023 (it had been the official language since 1970) and switched the colonizer's language to a working language, along with recognizing 13 local languages as officials.

Another example is Angola, which hasn't signed the Orthographic Agreement among Portuguese-speaking countries because of political reasons and concerns about how it might affect the value of their native languages like Kimbundu, Umbundu, and Kikongo.

Indigenous Languages x Spanish in Latin America

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In Latin America, Spanish is the most widely spoken official language. Then comes Portuguese, which is only official in Brazil (alongside indigenous languages like Guarani, Yanomami, Guajajara, Munduruku, etc.), and French, which is official in Haiti (alongside Haitian Creole).

Even though Spanish is the most common, Latin America (mostly consisting of South American countries - except for Guyana and Suriname - some Central American countries, and Mexico) goes beyond the languages of the colonizers

For example, Quechua and Guarani are the most spoken native languages in South America, with over 13 million speakers. In Peru, there are many speakers of Aymara and Quechua. Guarani is spoken in Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil.

Quechua is the language of the Incas, an ancient language with many variations in South America, making it difficult for speakers from different regions to understand each other. In Peru, 4 million people consider it their first language. Currently in this country, the Quechua from the provinces of Áncash, Lima, Huánuco, Junín, and Cerro de Pasco is considered the oldest.

Latin American countries have thousands of native languages, but the speakers of these languages are mostly found in historic cities or villages. Indigenous languages are not commonly used in the daily life of big cities.

The coexistence of native and official languages in a country faces two forces: on one side, the importance of keeping a language alive to honor a people's history, and on the other, the need to communicate internationally. It's up to the leaders to balance this coexistence by encouraging bilingual education for new generations, as well as preserving traditional culture and languages.

Thalita Lima
fotografia | redação | comunicação para o impacto socioambiental | arte
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