About half the countries of the world have declared one or more official languages. The government of Italy officialised Italian only in 1999, and some nations (such as the United States) have never declared official languages at the national level. Other nations have declared non-indigenous official languages. "The Philippines and parts of Africa live with a peculiar cultural paradox. Although the official languages may be French or English, these are not the languages most widely spoken by residents."
Worldwide, 178 countries have at least one official language, and 101 of these countries recognise more than one language. Many of the world's constitutions mention one or more official or national languages. Some countries use the official language designation to empower indigenous groups by giving them access to the government in their native languages. In countries that do not formally designate an official language, a de facto national language usually evolves. English is the most common official language, with recognized status in 51 countries. Arabic, French, and Spanish are also widely recognized.
An official language that is also an indigenous language is called endoglossic, one that is not indigenous is exoglossic. An instance is Nigeria which has three endoglossic official languages. By this the country aims to protect the indigenous languages although at the same time recognising the English language as its lingua franca.
Around 500 BC, when Darius the Great annexed Mesopotamia to the Persian Empire, he chose a form of the Aramaic language (the so-called Official Aramaic or Imperial Aramaic) as the vehicle for written communication between the different regions of the vast empire with its different peoples and languages. Aramaic script was widely employed from Egypt in the southwest to Bactria and Sogdiana in the northeast. Texts were dictated in the native dialects and written down in Aramaic, and then read out again in the native language at the places they were received.
The First Emperor of Qin standardized the written language of China after unifying the country in 221 BC. Classical Chinese would remain the standard written language for the next 2000 years. Standardization of the spoken language received less political attention, and Mandarin developed on an ad hoc basis from the dialects of the various imperial capitals until being officially standardized in the early twentieth century.
According to an undated chart by the American pro-English-only organization known as U.S. English, 178 countries have an official language at the national level. Among those, English is the most common with 67 nations giving it official status. French is second with 29 countries, Arabic is third with 26 countries and Spanish is fourth with 19 countries, Portuguese is the official language of 9 countries and German is official in 6. Some countries—like Australia, United Kingdom and the United States—have no official language recognized as such at national level. On the other extreme, Bolivia officially recognizes 37 languages, the most by any country in the world. Second to Bolivia is India with 23 official languages. South Africa is the country with the most official languages, all at equal status to one another, in the world. As Bolivia gives primacy to Spanish and India gives primacy to both English and Hindi.
The selection of an official language (or no official language) is often contentious. An alternative to having a single official language is "official multilingualism", where a government recognizes multiple official languages. Under this system, all government services are available in all official languages. Each citizen may choose their preferred language when conducting business. Most countries are multilingual and many are officially multilingual. Canada, Philippines, Belgium, Switzerland, and the European Union are examples of official multilingualism. This has been described as controversial and, in some other areas where it has been proposed, the idea has been rejected. It has also been described as necessary for the recognition of different groups or as an advantage for the country in presenting itself to outsiders.