The 6 Official UN Languages
The large role the United Nations (UN) plays in keeping our planet safe and secure is undeniable. Presently, 193 nations make up the UN, and if you’ve ever watched a session of the General Assembly, you might have wondered: with so many nationalities and languages represented, how do they communicate? The answer is simple. Translators and interpreters!
The UN has six official languages to ensure smooth, cohesive cooperation and communication. All oral and spoken communication must be conducted in any of these six languages. For example, when giving a speech, the representative of each country may choose any of these six languages to address the members, while simultaneous interpretation is delivered in the other five languages.
The UN honors each language with an official day to promote linguistic diversity.
Which languages are the official ones? Let’s take a look.
Arabic, the 5th most spoken language in the world, became an official language at the UN in 1973. More than 420 million people speak Arabic and its different dialects in over 22 countries.
This language, part of the Semitic language family, is unlike any of its fellow official languages. It uses a different set of characters and is written from right to left. In addition, there is a difference between Modern Standard Arabic, which is used in media, literature, and formal settings, and a distinct form of Arabic used in everyday conversation, which can vary by country or region. Both forms are used in combination with one another.
The Arabic Language Day is December 18th, the day it became an official language at the UN.
Chinese, specifically Mandarin Chinese, is China’s most widely spoken dialect. It is also the official language of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, as well as one of Singapore’s four official languages. Although this language is official in all of these countries, there are differences in the spoken varieties and even the written symbols that are used, particularly when it comes to Taiwan and China. To ensure that Chinese at the UN is unified, simplified Chinese characters are used.
Mandarin Chinese is the second most spoken language in the world (including both native and non-native speakers.) An estimated 1.3 billion people in the world speak this language, and the influence and importance of Chinese, especially in business, is only rising.
The official Chinese Language Day is observed annually on April 20th, in tribute to Cang Jie.
An official language of the UN since the body’s foundation, English is the most widely spoken language globally, with more than 1.5 billion native and non-native speakers around the globe.
English – which rose to prominence during the rule of the British Empire – remains the main language of not only international business but also in the political and diplomatic area. Along with French, it is one of the official languages of the International Olympic Committee. Additionally, it is the most spoken language in more than 60 countries globally.
April 23rd is the official English Language Day at the UN, to coincide with the birthday of William Shakespeare.
The birthplace of French, the language of the arts and poetry, is, of course, France. However, it is spoken by 250 to 300 million people worldwide. Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Luxembourg, Congo, Mali, Senegal, speak French as at least one of their official languages. Moreover, French is still widely spoken in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, and many other African countries because of France’s colonial legacy.
While all of these countries speak French, many have their own unique twist to the language, influenced by the rich cultures in which the language has developed over the centuries. In addition, French is one of the two official languages of the IOC, alongside English. Some even project that the number of French speakers could double or even triple by 2050!
Russian, the eighth most spoken language in the world, is the native language of approximately 170 million people and the foremost language in Eurasia. And Russian is not only spoken on Planet Earth; it is also one of the two main languages spoken in the International Space Station, alongside English.
UN Russian Language Day is June 6th, the birthday of Alexander Pushkin.
While globalization has created many new economic powerhouses and given rise to the importance of other languages, Spanish remains one of the most important languages when it comes to business.
The official language in 21 countries, Spanish is spoken by more than 1 billion people on the planet (with this number growing each year). There are many regional variants, with Spanish in Spain being different from Spanish in Central or South America. While a Spaniard and a citizen of Argentina or Mexico will be able to communicate, the most notable differences are in the accent and vocabulary.
October 12th used to be the Spanish Language Day at the UN, but it has been moved to April 23rd to honor Miguel de Cervantes. That’s the same day as UN English Language Day!
Is there a chance that another language might be added? German, Portuguese, Japanese, or even Korean, perhaps? Arabic is the only language to be added to the official language roster since the UN’s inception, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be another… But is it likely? It is certainly possible, however, at present there are no other languages seriously under consideration.
For the time being, these six languages are the only official languages of the UN, and may be for some time to come. And Chang-Castillo and Associates (CCA) will remain at your side to meet all your language needs, whether in the six UN languages or in any other language you may select, whether at one of the UN offices (such as New York City, Vienna or Geneva) or anywhere else in the world.