- Arabic (Modern Standard Arabic)
- Chinese (Written character: Simplified Chinese)
- English (British English with Oxford spelling)
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.
In 1996, the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights was presented to UNESCO but has yet to be officially ratified. Many international linguistics still expect that the UN will eventually add new official languages such as Hindi, Swahili, and Malay to represent Asian and African populations and put more resources into assisting endangered languages.
In 2002, it was reportedly 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.
Since the late 1990's and increasingly in the 2000's, there has been much discussion of adding Hindi, Portuguese, Swahili, Malay and to a lesser extent, Turkish, Bengali, or other languages as additional official languages. The most recent example being when the Deputy Secretary General was asked in January 2018 about the process of adding Hindi as an official language. Most proposed languages are spoken in more than one nation and/or have a large number of speakers.
As of June 2018, the media branch of the United Nations, UN News (https://news.un.org/), 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
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.
Because of the linguistic diversity in India, the expansion of Hindi has become political and has led to a rise of English in the post-British colonial period. This is why English is included along with Hindi on Indian passports. If the Indian government is able to grant more federal-level protection for other languages such as Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu, as a compromise then the UN may be more likely to grant a vote on adding Hindi as an official language. But as of now, the international community does not seem to see enough benefit to overcome the potential political issues that adding Hindi as official language of the UN could cause.
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; Macau in Asia, and Timor-Leste in Oceania. 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, Iran, China, Russia, and Afghanistan.
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
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