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Official languages of the United Nations

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Official languages of the United Nations

The official languages of the United Nations are the six languages that are used in UN meetings, and in which all official UN documents are written when budget allows. In alphabetical order, they are:


These languages are used at meetings of various 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. Until a document is available in all six official languages, it is not published. 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 states formally brought this to the attention of the Secretary-General in 2001.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6][7]

On 8 June 2007,[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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 states 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 authentic.

In 1946, the first session of the International Court of Justice", setting out five official languages and two working languages (English and French).[11]

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.[12]

Meanwhile, a proposal had been in the works to add Spanish as a third working language in addition to English and French. This was adopted in Resolution 262 (III), passed on 11 December 1948.[12][13]

In 1968, Russian was added as a working language of the General Assembly so that, of the GA's five official languages, four (all but Chinese) were working languages.[14][15]

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.[16][17][18]

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.[19]

As of 1983, the Security Council (like the General Assembly) recognized six official and working languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.[20]

In the Economic and Social Council, as of 1992, there are six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) of which three are working languages (English, French, and Spanish).[21] Later, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian were added as working languages in the Economic and Social Council.[22]

The United Nations Secretariat uses two working languages: English and French. All Secretaries-General have had a working knowledge of both languages.

New proposed languages


Bengali is one of the most spoken languages in the World, ranking 7th.[23] 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.[24]


A proposal has been made that Esperanto be adopted as an official UN language, initially as a complement to the current six official languages, with the ultimate goal of making Esperanto the primary language so that only certain documents would be translated into others, thus saving on translation costs.[25]


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.[26][27] In 2007, it was reported that the government would "make immediate diplomatic moves to see the status of an official language for Hindi at the United Nations".[28] Although it has one of the largest number of speakers in the world (approximately 500 million), Hindi is not an official language of the UN. The linguistic community is overwhelmingly concentrated in the Indian sub-continent and it is the most spoken language there.


Many Lusophones have advocated for greater recognition of their language, being the 5th[29] most spoken language in the world and spread over several continents: Portugal in Europe, Brazil in South America (the largest lusophone nation), Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tomé and Príncipe in Africa, and Timor-Leste and Macau in Asia. Thus, the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLC) demands official status of the language (with 250 million people using the language natively), as the use of Portuguese is growing more and more strongly with the increase of African and Brazilian population. However, it has been noted that Portuguese "is not an international language, used in diplomacy and business the way that French is".[30]

In 2008 the President of Portugal announced that the eight leaders of the CPLC had agreed to take the necessary steps to make Portuguese an official language.[31] This followed a decision by Portugal's legislators to adopt a standardization of Portuguese spelling.[32]


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.[33][34]

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".[35]

The first such coordinator was [36][37]

Following Riesco's retirement, [36]

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.[38][39]

The current coordinator for multilingualism is Kiyo Akasaka of Japan, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information.[40][41]

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.[42] The days and their historical significance are:

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.[51] The Universal Postal Union has just one official language, French.[52] IFAD has four official languages: Arabic, English, French, and Spanish.[53][54]

Parallels with other multilingual institutions

The European Union has a strict rule that all of its constituent member nations' languages have parity and all documents are translated into these. However, the majority of new members since 1990, notably the Scandinavian and Eastern Europeans, have not insisted on this and have indicated a preparedness to conduct matters in one of the five principal languages of the Western European nations (English, French, German, Italian and Spanish) because most diplomats are fluent in both their home language and at least one of these; there is in fact a marked preference by the newer members for English. The French are the most strenuous advocates for the all-languages parity rule.

The next largest international grouping after the UN is the classical Arabic is usually adopted across Muslim nation groups. Most of non-Muslim Africa is either Francophone or Anglophone because of their imperial past, but there is also a Lusophone grouping of countries for the same reason.


This article incorporates information from

See also


  1. ^ Haizhou Li (12 December 2006). Advances in Chinese Spoken Language Processing. World Scientific. p. 525.  
  2. ^ "Search Tips" (HTML). United Nations. Retrieved 2014-09-24. Additionally, the United Nations uses the British spelling of English words and Simplified Chinese. 
  3. ^ "Search Tips" (HTML). United Nations. Retrieved 2014-09-24. 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 and Simplified Chinese. 
  4. ^ "'"Plea to UN: 'More Spanish please. BBC News. 2001-06-21. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  5. ^ "Letter dated 18 June 2001". 2001-06-18. Retrieved 2010-01-26. 
  6. ^ Resolution 63/100 Questions relating to information (5 December 2008).
  7. ^ Resolution 63/306 Multilingualism (9 September 2009).
  8. ^ Resolution A/RES/61/266 Multilingualism 8 June 2007
  9. ^ "Multilingualism". United Nations Secretary-General. 2010-10-04. UN Doc ID A/65/488. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  10. ^ "Adopting Resolution on Multilingualism, General Assembly Emphasizes Importance of Equality Among Six Official United Nations Languages" (Press release). UN Department of Public Information. 2011-07-19. UN Doc ID GA/11116. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  11. ^ General Assembly Resolution 2 (I) Rules of Procedure Concerning Languages, 1 February 1946.
  12. ^ a b "Preparation of Multilingual Treaties: Memorandum by the Secretariat" 2. 1966. p. 4. Retrieved 2013-10-21. 
  13. ^ Resolution 262 (III)
  14. ^ Robert Reford (1968-12-18). "Russian to be included as UN working language". Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  15. ^ Resolution 2479 (XXIII) 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)
  16. ^ Resolution 3189 (XXVIII) Inclusion of Chinese among the working languages of the General Assembly and the Security Council (18 December 1973)
  17. ^ Resolution 3190 (XXVIII) Inclusion of Arabic among the official and the working languages of the General Assembly and its Main Committees (18 December 1973)
  18. ^ Resolution 3191 (XXVIII) 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
  19. ^ 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).
  20. ^ Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council Rules 41 to 47.
  21. ^ Rules of Procedure of the Economic and Social Council rules 32 to 35.
  22. ^ [1]
  23. ^ "Ethnologue --~~~~". SIL International. 
  24. ^ "'"Bengali 'should be UN language. BBC News. Retrieved 2 January 2014. 
  25. ^ "International Auxiliary Language: Document presented by the Transnational Radical Party and Esperanto International Federation". Archived from the original on 2014-01-01. Retrieved 2003-01-16. 
  26. ^ "Hindi in UNO". 2009-12-11. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  27. ^ "Government working actively for Hindi as official language of UN: S M Krishna". 2009-12-10. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  28. ^ "Hindi at UN: India to take action to get official status". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 2007-07-15. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  29. ^ Herles Matos, Frank (2009-06-28). "The 100 most spoken languages on the world". 
  30. ^ Larry Rohter (2006-10-23). "At Long Last, a Neglected Language Is Put on a Pedestal". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  31. ^ "Lusophone bloc mobilises to make Portuguese a UN language". The Portugal News Online. 2008-10-04. Retrieved 2010-01-26. 
  32. ^ Barry Hatton (2008-05-17). "Portugal's lawmakers accept Brazilian version of language". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2010-01-26. 
  33. ^ "Erdogan meets U.N. SG Ban Ki-moon". Anadolu Agency. 2011-09-23. Retrieved 2011-10-30. 
  34. ^ "Turkish emerges as candidate for official UN language". Sundays Zaman. 2011-10-02. Retrieved 2012-07-15. 
  35. ^ Resolution 54/64 adopted 6 December 1999.
  36. ^ a b Multilingualism: Report of the Secretary-General Doc. A/56/656, para. 4.
  37. ^ "Secretary-General Appoints Assistant Secretary-General Federico Riesco Coordinator for Multilingualism". 2000-09-08. Retrieved 2010-01-30. 
  38. ^ "Secretary-General Appoints Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor Coordinator for Multilingualism". 2003-03-31. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  39. ^ Resolution 54/64 Multilingualism (6 December 1999).
  40. ^ "United Nations Information Centres Launch Redesigned Website Telling Organization's Story in 130 Languages". 2008-10-24. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  41. ^ "Secretary-General Appoints Under-Secretary Kiyo Akasaka as Coordinator for Multilingualism". 2008-05-29. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  42. ^ "'"Department of Public Information to Launch 'Language Days at the United Nations (Press release). United Nations. 2010-02-19. UN Doc ID OBV/853 PI/1926. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  43. ^ a b "First-ever French language day celebrated at UN". UN News Centre. 2010-03-19. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  44. ^ a b c "United Nations Observances – Multilingualism". Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  45. ^ Chen Wen (2010-11-15). "UN Celebrates First Chinese Language Day". Beijing Review. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  46. ^ "Chinese Language Day" (in Chinese). Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  47. ^ "UN celebrates Chinese Language Day with art and exhibitions". 2011-04-20. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  48. ^ "English Language Day at the United Nations, 23 April 2011". Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  49. ^ "L'ONU célèbre la Journée de la langue française" (in French). 2011-03-21. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  50. ^ "Spanish Language Day to be celebrated at HQ on Tuesday, 12 October 2010". deleGATE. 2010-10-11. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  51. ^ "Rules of Procedure of the General Conference". 2010. , Rule 54
  52. ^ "Universal Postal Union – Languages". Universal Postal Union. Retrieved 2010-08-03. 
  53. ^ "Rules of Procedure of the Governing Council". Retrieved 2010-08-03. , Rule 20
  54. ^ "Rules of Procedure of the Executive Board". Retrieved 2010-08-03. , Rule 26

External links

  • Language Log
  • Top UN official stresses need for Internet multilingualism to bridge digital divide
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