The UN is one of the largest employers of language professionals in the world. “The correct interpretation and translation of these six languages, in both spoken and written form, is very important to the work of the Organization, because this enables clear and concise communication on issues of global importance.” (UN.org)
The history of the UN languages
There are six official UN languages. In 1946, the first five established were English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Russian. English and French were selected as “working languages”, which meant UN staff used them for day-to-day business, while any and all official documents needed to be written in the five official languages. Just two years later in 1948, Spanish was added to the General Assembly’s working languages.
What was the reasoning behind these first selections? English was chosen because of the United States’ position on the global stage, while French was most likely added because of its reputation as the international language of diplomacy. Spanish was the official language of 20 countries, and Chinese was the most widely-used language just by sheer population. While Russian wasn’t too common outside of the Soviet Union, they were a major political player. Over the next decades, adjustments were made:
1968 – the General Assembly adds Russia as its fourth working language.
1969 – the Security Council follows suit, adding both Russian and Spanish.
1973- Chinese becomes a working language in the General Assembly, while Arabic becomes an official and working language for the General Assembly.
1974 – Chinese becomes a working language for the Security Council.
1982 – Arabic becomes an official and working language for the rest of the UN.
How languages function at the UN
The UN is comprised of five core organizations – the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Secretariat, the Economic and Social Council, and the International Court of Justice. According to the UN site, a delegate may speak in any official language, and it is translated in real time into the other five languages. If a delegate chooses to speak in a language outside of the official six, they can, but they must provide either an interpretation or written text in one of the official languages.
Today, all six official UN languages are working languages and should be used equally, at least in theory. However, English and French are believed to be the most widely-used across the UN, which is troubling to many representatives. In 2001, Spanish-speaking UN reps even protested, saying that Spanish was not being used in assemblies and meetings. The UN doesn’t deny that the language usage is unbalanced. Having interpreters for every meeting, however, is expensive, and while part of the UN budget is meant to pay for language services, it often isn’t enough.
The Department of Global Communications designates six days out of the year where a specific language is supposed to be used and celebrated. For reps feeling like their language is not being used frequently, a single Language Day most likely doesn’t change their opinion much. The days are:
Chinese – April 20
English – April 23
Spanish – April 23
French – March 20
Russian – June 6
Arabic – December 18
Working as a language employee at the UN
To recruit interpreters and other language employees, the United Nations established a Universities Outreach Programme through the Department of General Assembly and Conference Management. The programme is intended to provide guidance for students interested in language careers at the UN.
Currently, the Department of General Assembly and Conference Management employs hundreds of language professionals in cities like New York, Nairobi, and Geneva. Regional UN commissions also hire many language professionals who perform tasks like interpretation, translation, proofreading, and more.
Will there ever be a seventh official UN language?
In the UN’s history, only one new language joined the original official five. Will there ever be another one, bringing the total to seven? For that to happen, a majority of the 193 UN members need to vote in favor of it, and then it’s up to the countries (or country) of the new language to help financially support the translation and interpretation services. As an example, if Hindi became an official language, the Indian government would need to pay $14 million. Currently, there are no proposals at the General Assembly for any new languages. Considering that English and French appear to be the most used – with the other four languages often left neglected – many believe the addition of any new official languages would be just a symbolic gesture and not a decision made for practical purposes.