The United Nations is an international organization that aims to promote peace and justice throughout the world. But with 193 member countries, communication is bound to be a little difficult.
What are the official languages of the UN? How are the languages of the UN used, and will there ever be more official languages of the UN?
Languages of the UN: A History
The United Nations was officially established on October 24, 1945.
Fifty-one nations were represented, and the official languages of the UN were named English, French, Russian, Spanish and Chinese.
The choice of the languages at the time was mostly political. The US had just proved to be a massive economic and military power, and English was the primary language. Although Russian was not widely spoken outside of the Soviet region, the country was considered a major power.
Spanish is the official language of 20 different countries, Chinese was — and still is — the most widely used language, and French was considered the language of diplomacy.
As more countries joined the United Nations, it became clear that the UN needed an additional official language. In 1973, Arabic became the sixth official language of the UN. This language was chosen due to its widespread popularity in several member countries — Arabic is the official language of 26 countries.
Controversy & the Languages of the UN
While all six official languages of the UN are supposed to have equal status, it appears that this isn’t truly the case.The United Nations has five different main organizations — the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Secretariat, the Economic and Social Council and the International Court of Justice.
In the Security Council, English and French are the main languages, and documents, meetings and other public information are often not available in the other four languages of the UN.
Additionally, as recently as 2001, Spanish-speaking UN representatives began to protest how little Spanish was being used during meetings and assemblies. UN member states sought to draw attention to the imbalanced use of the six official languages of the UN and disparaged the trend toward using only English.
UN correspondents agreed that there was some imbalance among the language use, but that having interpreters available for each meeting was costly. While a part of the UN’s budget covers language services, it sometimes falls upon the governments of the countries speaking the particular language to fund the interpreting and translation costs.
Will There Ever Be More Than Six Languages of the UN?
While UN delegates continue to call for equal use of all the official languages of the UN, some countries are pushing for another language to become official.
India has been making concentrated efforts to make Hindi the next official language of the UN. Government committees were formed and have even led to the development of a weekly UN radio news program in Hindi.
However, before Hindi can be adopted as an official language of the UN, a majority of the 193 UN member countries must agree to make the language official. India would then need to provide financial support for the translation and interpreting services, which the Indian government figured to be the equivalent of $14 million.
The $14 million would be a recurring fee due to the UN, but the UN would also be contributing toward the costs of supporting Hindi. This means the UN would need to make room in its budget as well for the personnel and interpreting equipment necessary to implement the new language.
While it seems likely that Hindi could become the next official language of the UN, a recent survey showed that member countries of the UN preferred to receive documents in English, Spanish and French only.
What’s more, India has not yet made any serious moves to make Hindi the seventh official UN language — the UN reports that there are currently no proposals in front of the General Assembly. Perhaps having so many official languages of the UN is more of a symbolic gesture than a way to accommodate the member states.