Which countries suffer the most from being split up by language?

The question I’m trying to ask is subjective and a bit confusing, but I’ll try to explain.

I am aware of certain countries, especially African, where the official language of government is not the language spoken by the vast majority of the populace.

I am also aware of countries where multiple languages are spoken but people are not necessarily bi or trilingual. For example, one community in switzerland may speak german, another may speak french, or whatever, with not many people being able to speak both.

So there are countries where the population is kind of divided against eachother, or against them and the government itself, by virtue of the fact that they have multiple languages.

My question is, which countries have it the worst? Is there a country were less than 5% of the population speaks the official language of government, thus vastly reducing anyone’s ability to actively and accurately participate in governance? Are there countries where there are 4 or 5 commonly spoken languages in geographically distinct areas without many people being able to speak or understand the languages of different areas of the country?

For example, I would rank the US very, very low on this list. Sure there are some areas of big cities where I might have trouble communicating (like an asian market or a hispanic area), but pretty much everywhere English is spoken, and while it is not an official language of government, it is the de facto language that our government uses, that our constitution is written in, etc. So the US would be way down low on the list of countries divided by language.

Can you at least give an example of this, and when you do, how can you know that it is the language alone that causes the division?

Probably India which they call “Bharat”.
Look at their paper currency. At least 26 languages are represented for almost
one billion people.
Hindi is the most common language. But English, thanks to the old British Empire, is the
language which combines and unifies the nation politically.

I cannot give examples because I’m asking which are the worst and how bad off are they. I only know enough to know that there are some countries with more language division than I’m used to in the US, but I don’t know how bad it can be, and that’s what I’m trying to find out.

India is one that was on my radar but I know precioiusly little about. So in India, when the government meets and such they all speak English, and the constitution and whatnot is in English, but the vast majority of the population does not speak English, and it also suffers from having 26 spoken languages? That sounds really bad. Makes one wonder how it is even all one country.

Belgium? I think they are pretty equally divided between French and Flemish, with the Flemish speakers traditionally holding political power. I remember reading that their current PMis the first French speaker in about 30 years to hold that office.

(he’s also Europe’s only openly gay leader. Yay!)

IMHO, it is Papua New Guinea.

From Wikipedia:
“Papua New Guinea is one of the most heterogeneous nations in the world. There are hundreds of ethnic groups indigenous to Papua New Guinea/…/ Papua New Guinea has more languages than any other country, with over 820 indigenous languages, representing twelve percent of the world’s total, but most have fewer than 1,000 speakers./…/ English is an official language and is the language of government and the education system, but it is not widely spoken.”

On the other hand, there is another interesting example :slight_smile: It is Bosnia and Hercegovina, with 3 official languages - Bosniak, Serbian and Croatian. Speakers of any of those languages insists that (s)he only speak his language, not any of another two - although those 3 languages are almost the same :wink:

<hijack>How could you forget Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, prime minister of Iceland until May 23 of this year, and who became prime minister on February 1st 2009, more than two years before Elio di Rupo (who only became prime minister of Belgium on December 6, 2011)?

Of course, at the moment, right now, he is the only one, but he was neither unique, nor the first ;)</hijack>

To be on topic – Until 1976, I think that the situation in Greece could be considered to be like what the OP asks about… The official language of Greece was the “Katharevousa” variant of Greek, a kind of “purified” Greek language developed by scholars during the 19th century which tried to “purge” non-Greek elements from the language and which harked back to Ancient Greek (using polytonic accents and everything).

It was so astonishingly different from what the people spoke in their everyday lives (“Dimotiki” Greek) that they could be said to be different languages. There are stories of teachers at schools (especially in rural districts) who gave their classes in Katharevousa and the pupils could not understand their teacher, and it seems that there were many people who were unable to understand newspapers, government documents or judicial proceedings (all of them written in or carried out in Katharevousa).

The situation was finally resolved in 1976 when Dimotiki was made the official language in Greece, leaving Katharevousa obsolete.

That story about Greece is very interesting! Thanks for sharing.

Canada has a pretty divisive language problem. In fact, the province with the second largest population keeps voting on whether to secede from Canada over it.

And yet, Canada has survived for 143 years, one of the oldest, continuously operating constitutions in the world, with one of the strongest economies in recent years, democratic governments, and strongly entrenched rule of law. The language issue is always present, but in the day-to-day life of individuals, it does not have a great presence or problem. The various accommodations that have been made throughout the country’s history on the language issue have kept the country together and fashioned a political and social culture of compromise and tolerance that works very well as a model for multi-lingual countries.

Agreed. I was going into this thread to post the answer of Canada, full stop. And since I live in the province Cat Whisperer mentioned, it’s a reality I live with every day.

I wish we could all just live in peace. :frowning:

PNG was my first thought. A friend lived there for a number of years; lots of violence between the indigenous groups; armed guards a must if you’re an expat; people in the streets armed with bush-knives; even still some cannibalism; women raped, killed or maimed by husbands, brothers and fathers after they’re accused of being a witch. It’s basically the most dangerous ‘peacetime’ region on the planet.

Tourism not a big earner for PNG, I take it? Pity: it strikes me as a fascinating place in many good ways – co-existing with “the above”.

Kind of looks like PNG is a single nation in name only. Ostensibly the national government controls the entire country, but there are so many isolated local cultures that probably effectively just govern themselves and have little to no contact with the outside world. Is that about right?

You’re obviously not from the Ottawa area.

And yet, we do live in peace.

The FLQ is dead. The last person who died over the language issue was Pierre LaPorte, in 1970. The federal government ensures that all Canadians can receive services from the federal government in either official language. Unilingual individuals of either official language can and do get elected to the federal Parliament, from Quebec and from other provinces. Parliament accommodates unilingual members as well as bilingual members. The last time we had a federal government radically split on the linguistic issue was in 1917; and since we no longer belong to the British Empire and imperialism is long dead, that type of split will simply not happen again.

The provinces are required to provide minority language education, in both Quebec and the other provinces. In Quebec, both languages are used in the National Assembly and in the Courts, and all laws are passed in both languages. There is a vibrant anglophone minority community in Quebec, and there are strong francophone minority communities in the other provinces.

True, we have issues, but compare our situation to some of the nations mentioned by other posters: Belgium, which went without an effective government for close to a year, because the language communities couldn’t agree; Papua New Guinea; the Greek example.

Canada works.

Not currently, but I have been.

Not if this guy becomes your new mayor. Another case of our shit doesn’t stink.

I can answer the opposite question: what country with multiple languages benefits the most under their setup. The answer is Namibia.

Nambia’s official language is English, which is only spoken natively by less than 1% of the population. This had nothing to do with colonialism: the choice was made after Namibia attained independence. The most widespread language are the Oshiwambo dialects, but there are several languages that compete with it. Afrikaans and German were the language of the white settlers, who were not well liked for apartheid.

When the country became independent, English was chosen for three reasons:

  1. It’s the language on international trade.
  2. It was popularized by the SWAPO Party, which led the country to independence.
  3. It wasn’t the language of any particular ethnic group, so no group had an advantage.

Namibians are taught in English and all official newspapers use it, but people speak their native language at home. The choice of English was a unifying force for the country.

Right but my question in post #2 still stands: How can you say it’s the language difference itself–alone–that is the cause of the divisions? How do you know that it’s causation rather than just correlation?