Official languages of the United Nations
- Arabic (Modern Standard Arabic)
- Chinese (Written character: Simplified Chinese)
- English (British English with Oxford spelling)
- 1 Description
- 2 History
- 3 Proposed "Semi-Official" language policy
- 4 UN Media
- 5 New Proposed Languages
- 6 Coordinator for multilingualism
- 7 Language Days at the UN
- 8 UN specialized agencies
- 9 Parallels with other multilingual institutions
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 External links
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. 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 nations 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 countries 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 authoritative.
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 were six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) of which three were working languages (English, French, and Spanish). Later, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian were added as working languages in the Economic and Social Council.
Proposed "Semi-Official" language policy
In 2002, it was proposed to the then current UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that the UN develops a 'Semi-Official' or 'Regional' language status for commonly spoken languages that do not have Official status so that a higher percentage of the worlds population could be familiar with UN actions. As of 2006, the six official languages are the first or second language of 2.8 billion people on the planet, which is less than half of the world population. The list of potential 'Semi-Official' or 'Regional' languages, many of which can be considered lingua francas in their areas, could include: Amharic, Bengali, Burmese, Cantonese, Chichewa, Fula, German, Gujarati, Hausa, Hindi, Igbo, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Javanese, Kannada, Korean, Lingala, Malay, Marathi, Oromo, Pashto, Persian, Portuguese, Punjabi, Shanghaiese, Shona, Swahili, Tagalog, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese, Urdu, Yoruba, Zulu, International Sign Language, International Braille, and possibly an international auxiliary language such as Esperanto, Ido, or Interlingua. As of 2017, the UN has taken no public action to approve a "Semi-Official" or "Regional" status mainly due to expected translation costs. Kofi Annan did not publicly support Semi-Official languages but did work to improve the parity of usage of the 6 existing official languages.
As of June 2018, the media branch of the United Nations, UN News, includes website translations into Portuguese and Swahili in addition to the 6 official languages. Other UN documents and websites are already translated into Bengali (referred to as Bangla), Hindi, Urdu, Malay, French Creole, Portuguese, and Swahili but not on an official or consistent basis.
New Proposed Languages
While there are no proposals before the General Assembly to add another official language, various individuals and states have informally raised the possibility of adding a new official language. Most of the proposed languages are World Languages that are lingua francas or are either Supra-regional or Supercentral in nature according to the Global Language System Theory.
Bengali is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, ranking seventh, with over 240 million speakers. 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.
Hindi is one of the official languages of India and Fiji and is also spoken in Suriname, Mauritius, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana. It is mutually intelligible to a high degree with Urdu which is spoken in Pakistan and together they are often considered the same language, referred to as Hindustani or Hindi-Urdu. Although very similar verbally, they do have different written scripts; Hindi is written in the Devanagari script and Urdu is written in the Nastaʿlīq script. Hindi has more than 550 million speakers in India alone, of whom 422 million are native, 98.2 million are second language speakers, and 31.2 million are third language speakers. Hindi is the lingua franca of the majority of Indians in the subcontinent, along with Pakistan (as Urdu), Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, with its importance as a global language increasing day by day. Hindi is the fourth most-spoken first language in the world, after Mandarin, Spanish and English.
In 2007, it was reported that the government would "make immediate diplomatic moves to seek the status of an official language for Hindi at the United Nations". 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 2015, Nepal's Vice President Parmananda Jha stated his firm support for the inclusion of Hindi as an official language of the UN.
Malay is an Austronesian language spoken throughout the Malay Peninsula and large swaths of Southeast Asia. Malay is an official language of Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia (which is the 4th most populous nation in the world), Singapore, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands and is a recognized minority language in Thailand where is it spoken in the Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani regions, and the Philippines where it is spoken in the Zamboanga Peninsula, the Sulu Archipelago, and Bataraza and Balabac in Palawan.
Spoken by more than 280 million people, Malay is considered the 7th most commonly spoken language by Ethnologue 2017. Malay has several names depending on the local vernacular designation, for example it is referred to as Bahasa Melayu in Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia in Indonesia and Kelantan-Pattani Malay in Thailand. The level of mutual intelligibility between these standards is debated. Having Malay as an official language of the UN would expand its presence into Asia which is growing rapidly. Malay is also prominent on the internet as the Malay language has the sixth most Internet users of all languages.
Many Lusophones have advocated for greater recognition of their language, being the sixth most spoken language in the world and spread across five continents: Portugal in Europe; Brazil (the largest lusophone nation) in South America; Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe in Africa; Timor-Leste and Macau in Asia. Portuguese is still spoken by a few thousand people in the former Portuguese colonies of Goa and Daman and Diu in India, and is an official language in ten countries.
In 2008, the President of Portugal announced that the then eight leaders of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) 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. The media branch of the UN, UN News, already includes translations into Portuguese.
Swahili is a lingua franca throughout eastern Africa and is especially prevalent in the African Great Lakes region. Swahili, known as Kiswahili by its speakers, is an official language of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is an official language of the African Union and is officially recognised as a lingua franca of the East African Community. It is one of the most commonly spoken languages in Africa, is a compulsory subject in all Kenyan schools and is increasingly being used in eastern Burundi.
With between 50 – 100 million speakers, Swahili is lexiconically similar to other eastern Bantu languages such as Comorian which have differing levels of mutual intelligibility. Swahili is already used unofficially in many UN organizations as the United Nations Office at Nairobi, one of the four major UN global offices (in addition to offices in New York City, Vienna, and Geneva), is located in Nairobi, Kenya. The media branch of the UN, UN News (https://news.un.org/), already includes translations into Swahili.
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. Turkic family languages, among which there is high mutual intelligibility, are spoken in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Northern Cyprus and Russia.
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.
The current coordinator for multilingualism is Catherine Pollard of Guyana. She replaces Kiyo Akasaka of Japan, who was also Under-Secretary-General for Communications and 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"; 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 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 languages 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. Standard Arabic is usually adopted across Muslim nation groups. Most of non-Arab Africa is either Francophone or Anglophone because of their imperial past, but there is also a lusophone grouping of countries for the same reason.
- List of official languages
- List of official languages by institution
- List of languages by number of native speakers
- Languages of the European Union
- International Mother Language Day
- League of Nations – Languages and Symbols
- The Interpreter
- Waste Isolation Pilot Plant#Warning messages for future humans
- "Union Nation Official Languages".
- "Spelling". United Nations Editorial Manual Online. Retrieved 30 October 2015; "Search Tips". United Nations. Retrieved 24 September 2014.
The UN standard is UK English. British spelling is used (i.e. colour, labour, programme). ... Additionally, the United Nations uses the British spelling of English words
- "Multilingualism". United Nations. Retrieved 25 February 2019.
- "Plea to UN: 'More Spanish please'". BBC News. 21 June 2001. Retrieved 25 January 2010.
- "Letter dated 18 June 2001" (PDF). 18 June 2001. Retrieved 26 January 2010.
- Resolution 63/100 Archived 14 January 2014 at the Wayback Machine Questions relating to information (5 December 2008).
- Resolution 63/306 Archived 3 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine Multilingualism (9 September 2009).
- Resolution A/RES/61/266 Archived 15 July 2010 at the Wayback Machine[dead link] Multilingualism 8 June 2007
- "Multilingualism". United Nations Secretary-General. 4 October 2010. UN Doc ID A/65/488. Retrieved 26 July 2011.
- "Adopting Resolution on Multilingualism, General Assembly Emphasizes Importance of Equality Among Six Official United Nations Languages" (Press release). UN Department of Public Information. 19 July 2011. UN Doc ID GA/11116. Retrieved 26 July 2011.
- General Assembly Resolution 2 (I) Archived 9 January 2015 at the Wayback Machine Rules of Procedure Concerning Languages, 1 February 1946.
- "Preparation of Multilingual Treaties: Memorandum by the Secretariat" (PDF). 1966. p. 4. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
- Resolution 262 (III) Archived 9 January 2015 at the Wayback Machine
- Robert Reford (18 December 1968). "Russian to be included as UN working language". Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved 25 January 2010.
- Resolution 2479 (XXIII) Archived 13 July 2015 at the Wayback Machine Inclusion of Russian among the working languages of the General Assembly (amendment to rule 51 of the rules of procedure of the General Assembly) and question of including Russian and Spanish among the working languages of the Security Council (21 December 1968)
- Resolution 3189 (XXVIII) Archived 13 July 2015 at the Wayback Machine Inclusion of Chinese among the working languages of the General Assembly and the Security Council (18 December 1973)
- Resolution 3190 (XXVIII) Archived 13 July 2015 at the Wayback Machine Inclusion of Arabic among the official and the working languages of the General Assembly and its Main Committees (18 December 1973)
- Resolution 3191 (XXVIII) Archived 13 July 2015 at the Wayback Machine Inclusion of Chinese among the working languages of the General Assembly, its committees and its subcommittees and inclusion of Arabic among the official and the working languages of the General Assembly and its Main Committees: amendments to rules 51 to 59 of the rules of procedure of the Assembly
- Resolution 35/219 Use of Arabic in the subsidiary organs of the General Assembly, in the Security Council and in the Economic and Social Council: amendments to rules 51, 52, 54 and 56 of the rules of procedure of the Assembly (17 December 1980).
- Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council Archived 2 May 2012 at the Wayback Machine Rules 41 to 47.
- Rules of Procedure of the Economic and Social Council rules 32 to 35.
-  Archived 14 February 2015 at the Wayback Machine
- "Top UN official stresses need for Internet multilingualism to bridge digital divide". 14 December 2009.
- "Department for General Assembly and Conference Management: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)". United Nations. Retrieved 25 February 2019.
- "Ethnologue". SIL International.
- "Bengali 'should be UN language'". BBC News. Retrieved 2 January 2014.
- ORGI. "Census of India: Comparative speaker's strength of Scheduled Languages-1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001".
- "Indiaspeak: English is our 2nd language – Times of India".
- "Hindi. Varanasi. Norwegians. What's the sambandh? – The Siasat Daily".
- Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin. Asterisks mark the 2010 estimates for the top dozen languages.
- "Hindi at UN: India to take action to get official status". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 15 July 2007. Retrieved 25 January 2010.
- "Hindi in UNO". 11 December 2009. Retrieved 25 January 2010.
- "Government working actively for Hindi as official language of UN: S M Krishna". 10 December 2009. Retrieved 25 January 2010.
- "Hindi should be an official language in the UN: Nepal Vice President – Firstpost". 12 January 2015.
- "Jumlah dan Distribusi Penduduk". Badan Pusat Statistik. May 2010. Retrieved 13 April 2018.
- "How many people speak Indonesian?". ipll.manoa.hawaii.edu.
- "The World Factbook — Central Intelligence Agency".
- "Tony Correia-Afonso: Portuguese Language in Goa". Archived from the original on 29 May 2001.
- "Lusophone bloc mobilises to make Portuguese a UN language". The Portugal News Online. 4 October 2008. Retrieved 26 January 2010.
- Barry Hatton (17 May 2008). "Portugal's lawmakers accept Brazilian version of language". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 26 January 2010.
- Prins 1961
- "Erdogan meets U.N. SG Ban Ki-moon". Anadolu Agency. 23 September 2011. Archived from the original on 28 March 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2011.
- "Turkish emerges as candidate for official UN language". Sundays Zaman. 2 October 2011. Archived from the original on 15 November 2014. Retrieved 15 July 2012.
- Resolution 54/64 Archived 4 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine adopted 6 December 1999.
- Multilingualism: Report of the Secretary-General Archived 2 October 2010 at the Wayback Machine Doc. A/56/656, para. 4.
- "Secretary-General Appoints Assistant Secretary-General Federico Riesco Coordinator for Multilingualism". 8 September 2000. Retrieved 30 January 2010.
- "Secretary-General Appoints Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor Coordinator for Multilingualism". 31 March 2003. Retrieved 25 January 2010.
- Resolution 54/64 Archived 20 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine Multilingualism (6 December 1999).
- "Secretary-General Appoints Under-Secretary-General Catherine Pollard of Guyana Coordinator for Multilingualism". 17 December 2015. Retrieved 8 January 2016.
- "United Nations Information Centres Launch Redesigned Website Telling Organization's Story in 130 Languages". 24 October 2008. Retrieved 25 January 2010.
- "Secretary-General Appoints Under-Secretary Kiyo Akasaka as Coordinator for Multilingualism". 29 May 2008. Retrieved 25 January 2010.
- "Department of Public Information to Launch 'Language Days at the United Nations'" (Press release). United Nations. 19 February 2010. UN Doc ID OBV/853 PI/1926. Retrieved 26 July 2011.
- "First-ever French language day celebrated at UN". UN News Centre. 19 March 2010. Retrieved 26 July 2011.
- "United Nations Observances – Multilingualism". Retrieved 26 July 2011.
- Chen Wen (15 November 2010). "UN Celebrates First Chinese Language Day". Beijing Review. Retrieved 26 July 2011.
- "Chinese Language Day" (in Chinese). Retrieved 26 July 2011.
- "UN celebrates Chinese Language Day with art and exhibitions". 20 April 2011. Retrieved 26 July 2011.
- "English Language Day at the United Nations, 23 April 2011". Retrieved 26 July 2011.
- "L'ONU célèbre la Journée de la langue française" (in French). 21 March 2011. Retrieved 26 July 2011.
- "Spanish Language Day to be celebrated at HQ on Tuesday, 12 October 2010". deleGATE. 11 October 2010. Retrieved 26 July 2011.
- "Rules of Procedure of the General Conference" (PDF). 2010., Rule 54
- "Universal Postal Union – Languages". Universal Postal Union. Retrieved 3 August 2010.
- "Rules of Procedure of the Governing Council" (PDF). Retrieved 3 August 2010., Rule 20
- "Rules of Procedure of the Executive Board" (PDF). Retrieved 3 August 2010., Rule 26