Official languages of the United Nations
The official languages of the United Nations are the six languages that are used in UN meetings, and in which all official UN documents are written when budget allows. In alphabetical order, they are:
These languages are used at meetings of various UN organs, particularly the General Assembly (Article 51 of its Rules of Procedure), the Economic and Social Council, and the Security Council (Article 41 of its Rules of Procedure). Each representative of a country may speak in any one of these six languages, or may speak in any language and provide interpretation into one of the six official languages. The UN provides simultaneous interpretation from the official language into the other five official languages, via the United Nations Interpretation Service.
The six official languages are also used for the dissemination of official documents. Until a document is available in all six official languages, it is not published. Generally, the texts in each of the six languages are equally authoritative.
The United Nations has drawn criticism for relying too heavily on English, and not enough on the other five official languages. Spanish-speaking member states formally brought this to the attention of the Secretary-General in 2001. Secretary-General Kofi Annan then responded that full parity of the six official languages was unachievable within current budgetary restraints, but he nevertheless attached great importance to improving the linguistic balance. In 2008 and 2009, resolutions of the General Assembly have urged the Secretariat to respect the parity of the six official languages, especially in the dissemination of public information.
On 8 June 2007, resolutions concerning human resources management at the UN, the General Assembly had emphasized "the paramount importance of the equality of the six official languages of the United Nations" and requested that the Secretary-General "ensure that vacancy announcements specified the need for either of the working languages of the Secretariat, unless the functions of the post required a specific working language".
The Secretary-General's most recent report on multilingualism was issued on 4 October 2010. In response, on 19 July 2011, the General Assembly adopted Resolution No. A/RES/65/311 on multilingualism, calling on the Secretary-General, once again, to ensure that all six official languages are given equally favourable working conditions and resources. The resolution noted with concern that the multilingual development of the UN website had improved at a much slower rate than expected.
The six official languages spoken at the UN are the first or second language of 2.8 billion people on the planet, less than half of the world population. The six languages are official languages in more than half the states in the world (about one hundred).
The Charter of the United Nations, its 1945 constituent document, did not expressly provide for official languages of the UN. The Charter was enacted in five languages (Chinese, French, Russian, English, and Spanish) and provided (in Article 111) that the five texts are equally authentic.
In 1946, the first session of the United Nations General Assembly adopted rules of procedure concerning languages that purported to apply to "all the organs of the United Nations, other than the International Court of Justice", setting out five official languages and two working languages (English and French).
The following year, the second session of the General Assembly adopted permanent rules of procedure, Resolution 173 (II). The part of those rules relating to language closely followed the 1946 rules, except that the 1947 rules did not purport to apply to other UN organs, just the General Assembly.
In 1973, the General Assembly made Chinese a working language and added Arabic as both an official language and working language of the GA. Thus all six official languages were also working languages. Arabic was made an official and working language of "the General Assembly and its Main Committees", whereas the other five languages had status in all GA committees and subcommittees (not just the main committees). The Arab members of the UN had agreed to pay the costs of implementing the resolution, for three years.
In 1980, the General Assembly got rid of this final distinction, making Arabic an official and working language of all its committees and subcommittees, as of 1 January 1982. At the same time, the GA requested the Security Council to include Arabic among its official and working languages, and the Economic and Social Council to include Arabic among its official languages, by 1 January 1983.
As of 1983, the Security Council (like the General Assembly) recognized six official and working languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.
In the Economic and Social Council, as of 1992, there are six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) of which three are working languages (English, French, and Spanish). Later, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian were added as working languages in the Economic and Social Council.
New proposed languages
Bengali is one of the most spoken languages in the World, ranking 7th. In April 2009 Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina argued in front of the United Nations General Assembly that the Bengali language should be made one of the official languages of the UN. This was backed by a resolution adopted unanimously by the assembly of the Indian state of West Bengal in December, and support was also given by the states of Assam and Tripura.
A proposal has been made that Esperanto be adopted as an official UN language, initially as a complement to the current six official languages, with the ultimate goal of making Esperanto the primary language so that only certain documents would be translated into others, thus saving on translation costs.
According to a 2009 press release from its Ministry of External Affairs, the Government of India has been "working actively" to have Hindi recognized as an official language of the UN. In 2007, it was reported that the government would "make immediate diplomatic moves to see the status of an official language for Hindi at the United Nations". However, there has been opposition to this from southern India, where Hindi is not widely spoken.
Although it has one of the largest number of speakers in the world (approximately 500 million), Hindi is not an official language of the UN. The linguistic community is overwhelmingly concentrated in the Indian sub-continent and it is the most spoken language there, but the language faces opposition there from Indian states such as Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, who are concerned about possible efforts by the Indian Government to impose Hindi on them. English remains the link language between Hindi and non-Hindi states in India.
Many Lusophones have advocated for greater recognition of their language, being the 5th most spoken language in the world and spread over several continents: Portugal in Europe, Brazil in South America, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tomé and Príncipe in Africa, and Timor-Leste and Macau in Asia. Thus, the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLC) demands official status of the language (with 240 million people using the language natively), as the use of Portuguese is growing more and more strongly with the increase of African and Brazilian population. However, it has been noted that Portuguese "is not an international language, used in diplomacy and business the way that French is".
In 2008 the President of Portugal announced that the eight leaders of the CPLC had agreed to take the necessary steps to make Portuguese an official language. This followed a decision by Portugal's legislators to adopt a standardization of Portuguese spelling.
In September 2011, during a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed a desire to see Turkish become an official UN language.[dead link]
Coordinator for multilingualism
In a 1999 resolution, the General Assembly requested the Secretary-General to "appoint a senior Secretariat official as coordinator of questions relating to multilingualism throughout the Secretariat".
In 2003, Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Shashi Tharoor of India as Coordinator for Multilingualism. This responsibility was in addition to Tharoor's role as Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, head of the Department of Public Information.
Language Days at the UN
In 2010, the UN's Department of Public Information announced an initiative of six "language days" to be observed throughout the year, one for each official language, with the goal of celebrating linguistic diversity and learning about the importance of cross-cultural communication. The days and their historical significance are:
- UN Arabic Language Day: 18 December (the date on which the United Nations General Assembly designated Arabic as the sixth official language of the United Nations in 1973);
- UN Chinese Language Day: first celebrated 12 November now set on 20 April ("to pay tribute to Cang Jie")
- UN English Language Day: 23 April ("the date traditionally observed as the birthday of William Shakespeare")
- UN French Language Day: 20 March (corresponding to the Journée internationale de la Francophonie)
- UN Russian Language Day: 6 June (the birthday of Alexander Pushkin)
- UN Spanish Language Day: 12 October (celebrated in the Spanish-speaking world as "Día de la Hispanidad" or "Día de la Raza"; compare Columbus Day)
UN specialized agencies
UN independent agencies have their own sets of official languages that sometimes are different from that of the principal UN organs. For example, the General Conference of UNESCO has nine official languages including Hindi, Italian, and Portuguese. The Universal Postal Union has just one official language, French. IFAD has four official languages: Arabic, English, French, and Spanish.
Parallels with other multilingual institutions
The European Union has a strict rule that all of its constituent member nations' languages have parity and all documents are translated into these. However, the majority of new members since 1990, notably the Scandinavian and Eastern Europeans, have not insisted on this and have indicated a preparedness to conduct matters in one of the five principal languages of the Western European nations (English, French, German, Italian and Spanish) because most diplomats are fluent in both their home language and at least one of these; there is in fact a marked preference by the newer members for English. The French are the most strenuous advocates for the all-languages parity rule.
The next largest international grouping after the UN is the Commonwealth of Nations which is exclusively English speaking. All other international bodies in commerce, transport and sport have tended to the adoption of one or a few language as the means of communication. This is usually English, closely followed by French (see: list of international organisations which have French as an official language). Regional groups have adopted what is common to other elements of their ethnic or religious background; classical Arabic is usually adopted across Muslim nation groups. Most of non-Muslim Africa is either Francophone or Anglophone because of their imperial past, but there is also a Lusophone grouping of countries for the same reason.
- This article incorporates information from
- Official language
- List of official languages
- List of official languages by institution
- List of languages by number of native speakers
- List of most widely spoken languages by number of countries
- Languages of the European Union
- International Mother Language Day
- League of Nations - Languages and Symbols
- The Interpreter
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