‘National’ and ‘Official’ Languages Across the Independent Asia-Pacific

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Rowena Ward


Between November 2018 and 2020, residents of New Caledonia will have three opportunities to vote on whether to become an independent state. Residents of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville will vote on the same issue in June 2019. Should the residents of either territory vote for independence, the issue of whether a language shall be designated the national and / or official language for the new state will arise. If the decision is to designate a language for the new state, the choice of which language will also surface. This chapter considers the language choices made by a number of countries across the linguistically diverse Asia Pacific region post-independence and in so doing, provides some models for the language configurations which may eventuate should either territory become independent. The linguistic configurations discussed here are divided into Category 1 - countries where a national and / or official language are legally specified or have de jure legal status. - and Category 2 – countries where no language is legally named but at least one language may be de facto national or official. Examples of Category 1 countries include Indonesia where Bahasa Indonesia is the only de jure national and official language and Vanuatu where Bislama is the de jure national language and is also a de jure co-official language with both English and French, the languages of the former colonial powers. Examples of Category 2 countries discussed here include Papua New Guinea where Tok Pisin is named as one of the possible languages needed for an applicant to become a Papua New Guinean citizen but does not have de jure national language status and the Solomon Islands where Pijin is the de facto national language and English is the de facto official language.

 Whilst the results of either the Bougainville and New Caledonian referenda are not clear, the different configurations already in place serve as a pointer to what may eventuate should the residents of either territory vote for independence.

Article Details

Decolonisation: Ripples in the Asia Pacific Special Issue 2019 (Peer Reviewed)