The UN has six official languages: French, English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian.
The United Nations was established in 1945. Since its early days, this intergovernmental organization aimed to support international peace, security, and human rights. Because the UN is international, it uses several languages for meetings, documents, and other communications. In this article, we’ll dive into the six official languages, including how they were selected and what it’s like to work as a language professional at the UN.
How were the official UN languages chosen?
When the UN chose its official languages in 1946, members settled on just five: English, French, Chinese, Spanish, and Russian. Why these languages? The United States played a huge role on the global stage, though the country had not participated in the precursor to the UN: the League of Nations. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles laid the grounds for the League of Nations, and while President Wilson strongly encouraged the Senate to approve U.S. membership, he ultimately failed. The League of Nations and its dream of global peace crumbled with the advent of WWII. After the Allies won the war, President Roosevelt recognized the importance of an international organization. This time, the US was a leader in its creation. It made perfect sense to include English as an official language.
French was part of the original five languages because it had a reputation as the language of diplomacy. Chinese was the most widely-used language by population, while Spanish was the official language of 20 countries. The Soviet Union was a major political player, so Russian was also included despite it not being spoken much outside the Soviet Union. In 1973, the General Assembly voted to include Arabic as an official language. According to the UN website, Arabic is one of the most used and widespread countries in the world with over 400 million speakers. Since Arabic’s inclusion, there are now six official UN languages.
What’s the difference between official and working languages?
The UN has both “official” and “working” languages. How are they different? The official UN documents made available to the public use the official languages. That means, whenever the UN releases communications to the public, they’re (ideally) available in all six languages. Working languages, however, refer to the languages used for internal communications among staff. When the UN was established, just two languages were chosen as working languages: English and French. Today, those two languages are still the working languages of the Secretariat.
Working languages gradually expanded throughout the UN system. As an example, the General Assembly selected Spanish as one of its working languages in 1948, while the Security Council didn’t add Spanish as a working language until 1969. Today, the General Assembly and the Security Council use all six official languages as working languages, so there isn’t a true difference anymore.
How does language work at the UN?
The UN system has 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 website, a delegate may speak in any official language, which is translated in real-time into the other five languages. Is a delegate limited to just these six languages? They are allowed to speak in a language other than the official six, but they must provide either an interpreter or written text in one of the official languages. As an example, a delegate can speak in German, but they’re responsible for providing an interpretation or text written in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, or Arabic.
While the six official UN languages are now working languages, there are concerns about language equality. English and French are still the most widely used across the UN. In 2001, 20 Spanish-speaking countries wrote a letter to then-U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan protesting a “growing imbalance” in spoken languages. The signers argued that the UN was failing to translate all public documents and information into all six official languages. Instead, most of the printed and digital documents were favoring English. Why is this an issue? It costs money to translate every document into all six languages, but a translation imbalance means millions of people can’t access information from the UN.
Will there ever be a seventh official UN language?
In the UN’s history, only one new language joined the original official five: Arabic. Will the UN ever add another one and bring the total to seven? In theory, the UN could accept more than seven official languages. There’s a specific process. First, a majority of the 193 UN members need to vote in favor of it. Assuming a majority is reached, the countries (or country) of the new language (as well as the rest of the member states) must help financially support the translation and interpretation services. This costs millions of dollars, which affects how countries will vote on the language. If they don’t see the language as practical or necessary, they’re unlikely to vote in favor of it. When Arabic was adopted as an official language, it was with the assurance that the Arab Member States would cover implementation costs for the first three years.
Many people wonder why Hindi isn’t an official language because there are so many speakers. There are currently no resolutions to adopt Hindi, but India has made significant financial moves to promote the language. According to The Economic Times, India contributed $800,000 to continue expanding Hindi’s use within the UN’s agencies.
How do you become a language professional at the UN?
According to the UN, language staff are typically recruited through Language Competitive Examinations. Exams take place every 2-3 years in each of the six UN languages and occupational groups. Exams are announced on the UN Careers portal a few months before they’re scheduled. To be eligible, a candidate must meet all the requirements listed for the exam (they can change year to year), be 56 years or younger at the end of the exam year, and have the exam’s language as their main language. The exams typically have two parts: career-specific skills tests with an interview, and additional skills tests. If a candidate passes both parts of the exam, they’re put on a recruitment roster. When jobs need to be filled, the UN will look at this roster.
The United Nations also has a Universities Outreach Programme through the Department of General Assembly and Conference Management, which recruits language professionals. The program guides 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.
What types of language professionals work at the UN?
The UN is a massive organization. It has offices in 193 countries and employs around 37,000 people. According to the UN, it is one of the world’s largest employers of language professionals, which includes a range of careers like interpreters, translators, editors, verbatim reporters, and others. Here’s a sample of what language professionals do at the UN:
When the UN holds meetings and conferences, interpreters are always on hand. They translate the speaker’s language into the other five languages, so all six official languages are present at the UN. Interpreters do more than just translate; they also have a thorough knowledge of UN processes and vocabulary, world events, cultural context, and more.
Translators work on the official UN documents. Their job is to translate everything into the six official languages. Documents include Member State statements and reports from expert bodies, like the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Labour Organization, and UNICEF. Before documents go public, translators work with an editor to ensure the documents are accurate, formatted properly, written clearly, and more. According to the UN, most UN editors speak English as their first language.
Verbatim reporters create exact transcripts of delegate speeches. These are the official records of UN bodies like the General Assembly and the Security Council. Because the transcripts must be verbatim, reporters are extremely detail-oriented and calm under pressure.
What are “language days” at the UN?
Every year, the UN’s Department of Global Communication chooses six days to recognize each of the six languages used at the UN. The point is to celebrate the organization’s multilingualism and promote language equality. The days are:
- Chinese – April 20
- English – April 23
- Spanish – April 23
- French – March 20
- Russian – June 6
- Arabic – December 18
Where can you learn the official UN languages?
If you want to work as a language professional at the UN, you need to know at least one of the official languages, but most candidates have a better chance if they know at least two. There are many online options where you can learn for free or for an affordable fee. Here are three examples:
This popular language platform can be accessed on a computer, but many people prefer the mobile app, which lets you learn pretty much wherever you are. The app’s layout is easy to navigate, and thanks to Duolingo’s game-like structure, learning can be entertaining. You’re rewarded with points for working through the challenges and using the app daily. While reviews say you may not reach full fluency with the app, it’s a great way to get a foundation in a language. You can learn Spanish, French, English, Russian, Chinese, and Modern Standard Arabic with Duolingo.
This MOOC platform offers classes from the world’s leading universities and institutions. Its many courses include language courses. Most of them are free, though you can choose to upgrade to a verified track for a fee. If you want your assignments graded, you’ll need to be on the verified track. Edx offers courses in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Arabic.
Coursera is another big MOOC platform. It works very similarly to edx where courses can be audited for free, but often require a fee if you want a certificate. There are courses designed for various fluencies, including beginners and intermediate speakers. English, Spanish, and Chinese courses are available.