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Can the dream of multilingualism be achieved through the UN's official languages

The biggest platform for international dialogue presents many linguistic challenges 

United Nations Multilingualism

The United Nations (UN) was founded at the end of the Second World War, with the main purpose aimed at ensuring peace and international security in the world by serving as an arbiter in conflicts, facilitating cooperation among countries, enhancing economic development, and promoting human rights.

This makes it the largest international organization in the world which means that it is also the biggest platform for international dialogue which as you can imagine, presents linguistic challenges for all the 193 Member States.

To overcome this, at the founding of the UN, it was seen fit to have official languages ​​which at the time, was comprised of these 4 languages namely;

  • English
  • Chinese
  • French
  • Russian

However, on 18 December 1973, through a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, Spanish and Arabic were added to the list of official languages of the UN.

What this means is that only these languages ​​are the sole mediums for conducting official meetings and writing the UN’s official documents. 

It also means that each representative of a country is at liberty to use one of these six languages ​​or, if he wishes to speak his own language, it is up to him to provide an interpreter who will subsequently interpret it into one of the six official languages – as some countries have done. ​​

But are these six UN languages really equal? 

By every measurable metric out there, it seems that all the official UN languages except English, are doing rather badly in terms of visibility and official usage.

As a testament to this state of affairs, the recruitment of UN officials favours English as a compulsory language, while other official languages in the UN like Arabic and French are rarely required, although they are considered working languages of the United Nations.

So the question arises? Why this trend towards monolingualism at the UN? Why the hegemonic dominance of English at the UN? 

To respond to this question, we need to address one of the most observable immediate realities that consign these other UN languages at the marges.

The first one can largely be attributed to financial constraints, the reason being that having interpreters available for each meeting is very costly even though part of the UN budget is allocated for language services.

In fact, it sometimes falls upon individual governments to fund translation and interpretation services at the UN.

Secondly, are pragmatic concerns that simply do not allow an interpreter to be available all the time, and this is why. 

While in a structured formal meeting you can easily plan and arrange for interpreters however, the same is not true of informal meetings which happen on the margins of the main conferences and summits. 

These informal meetings often carry high diplomatic weight and to avoid misunderstandings, delegates will thus resort to using English.

But beyond these constraints, there is further evidence that the reason why there is no parity among the UN languages, is because of the deliberate promotion of monolingualism. 

To understand why this is the case, numerous findings supported by various figures gleaned from various independent sources have shown how multilingualism faces so many obstacles at the UN. 

In fact, a study by the joint inspection unit – an external oversight body of the United Nations, showed that the working languages of the UN aren’t treated equally.

Here are some of the major observations they made;

  1. English largely dominates informal meetings.
  2. 90% of the UN reports received by the UN secretariat in Geneva are in English.
  3. 75% of staff recruitment required English as the compulsory language.
  4. The instruction and training manuals for United Nations staff are largely written in the English language.
  5. Only a fifth of the UN websites are multilingual. 

When you understand this problem, you will then know why we still do not have a 7th language

As you can imagine, various regions in the world would want their languages to become official UN languages. 

But even before making the case for the 7th UN language, we still have to resolve the current hegemonic dominance of the English language.

Secondly,  we do not have a unanimous definition and the necessary criteria for a language to become eligible as an official or working UN language. 

This is why lobbying for a 7th language won’t yield many results in terms of multilingual variety at the UN.  

This is because you would need sufficient reason to explain away why you chose Portuguese as the best candidate for the 7th Official language, and not Farsi or German – and vice versa.

Thirdly, it is very difficult to define clear policies that would incentivize people to follow up and ensure compliance in the diffusion and the issuance of information in multiple official languages – more so in electronic media and numerous public briefings – UN produces lot’s of content as you can imagine.

Fourthly, the current generation of young students in the world over who are interested in diplomacy and international relations, have shown an overwhelming interest in using English while interacting with academic content.

This is a worrying trend since these students will be the future diplomats and UN delegates and unfortunately, to solve this last challenge you cannot resort to the UN.

This is because the UN’s capacity is limited in terms of influencing national educational policies in individual countries.

Nonetheless, there is still a way, and experts have recommended that some of these disciplines like Geopolitics and international relations, should require students to have a command of at least two UN official languages before admission – but such is task only achievable through national educational policies. 

This is not a far fetched possibility, since history’s most notable diplomats were always multilingual and the current tendency towards monolingualism, only undermines this ancient principle.  

The initiatives undertaken by german speaking countries show us how to reverse this trend

Even though German is not an official UN language, it is still visible in various UN documentation which as we will see, is as a result of a deliberate push from individual governments.

At the UN, they have a German Translation Service which is jointly funded by Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein so as to offer timely translations of UN official documents.

This initiative goes as back as 1975 and to this day, they have managed to go as far as creating an up to date website where you can access United Nations documents and all the UN terminologies in German.

In fact, thanks to their initiative, you can read the Charter of the United Nations, the UN organizational chart, UN conventions, declarations and other UN instruments in the German language.


Written by Briana Anabtawi, Head of Service & Operations, LEXIGO: As Head of Service and Operations, Briana is responsible for quality, client satisfaction and efficiency in service delivery for LEXIGO Strategic Clients and Partners. Briana's professional background in the travel and tourism industry has provided her with a unique insight into culture, language and project management.