Official languages of the United Nations

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. They are:



These languages are used at meetings of various UN organs, particularly the General Assembly (Article 51 of its Rules of Procedure) 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.

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.[1] (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.[2]) Over the last several years, 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.[3][4]

In several recent resolutions concerning human resources management at the UN, the General Assembly has stressed “the need to respect the equality of each of the two working languages of the Secretariat” and requested the Secretary-General “to ensure that vacancy announcements specify the need for either of the working languages [English and French] of the Secretariat unless the functions of the post require a specific working language.”[5]

The Secretary-General's most recent report on multilingualism was issued on October 4, 2010.[6] In response, on July 19, 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.[7]


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 United Nations General Assembly adopted rules of procedure concerning languages that purported to apply to “all the organs of the United Nations, other than the International Court of Justice”, setting out five official languages and two working languages (English and French).[8]

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.[9]

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.[10][11]

In 1968, Russian was added as a working language of the General Assembly so that of the GA’s five official languages, four of them (all but Chinese) were working languages.[12][13]

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.[14][15][16]

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 by 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.[17]

As of 1983, the Security Council (like the General Assembly) recognized six official and working languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.[18]

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).[19]

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

Other proposed languages

The six official languages spoken at the UN are the mother tongue 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).


Being one of the most spoken languages in the World, ranking 5th or 6th, in 2009 elected representatives in both Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura unanimously voted in resolutions calling for Bengali to be made an official UN language.[20] Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also put forward the proposal during her address to the 64th UN General Assembly Session, arguing that Bengali holds a "singular place as a symbol of people's faith in the power of languages to sustain cultures, and indeed the identity of nations".[21]


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.[22]

In 1966, the Universal Esperanto Association proposed that the UN solve its language problem by supporting use of Esperanto.[23]

Despite these attempts, consideration of adding Esperanto as an official language has never made the UN agenda.[24]


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.[25][26] 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”.[27] However, there has been opposition to this from southern India, where Hindi is not widely spoken.[28]

Although it has one of the largest number of speakers in the world (approximately 400 million), Hindustani is not an official language of the UN. The linguistic community is overwhemingly concentrated in the Indian sub-continent and is the most spoken language there, but within its own sub-continent the language faces opposition from states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and to a lesser extent West Bengal in India, who view it as efforts on part of the Indian Government to impose Hindi on them. English remains the link language between Hindi and non-Hindi states to this day in India. The many variants of Hindustani complicate its recognition as an official language.


Many Lusophones have advocated for greater recognition of their language, as it is spoken several continents: Portugal in Europe, Brazil in South America, Angola, Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea, 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 demands official status of the language (with 240 million people using the language fluently), while the use of Portuguese is growing strongly with the increase of the Brazilian population. It has also been noted that Portuguese “is not an international language, used in diplomacy and business the way that French is”.[29]

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.[30] This followed a decision by Portugal's legislators to adopt a standardization of Portuguese spelling that leans toward Brazilian Portuguese.[31]


In September 2011, during a meeting with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed a desire to see Turkish become an official UN language.[32]

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”.[33]

The first such coordinator was Federico Riesco, appointed on 6 September 2000.[34][35]

Following Riesco's retirement, Miles Stoby of Guyana was appointed Coordinator for Multilingualism, effective 6 September 2001.[36]

In 2003, Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Shashi Tharoor 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.[37][38]

The current coordinator for multilingualism is Kiyo Akasaka, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information.[39][40]

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

  • Arabic Language Day at the UN: December 18 (the date on which the United Nations General Assembly designated Arabic as the sixth official language of the United Nations in 1973);[42][43]
  • Chinese Language Day at the UN: first celebrated November 12[44][45] now set on April 20 ("to pay tribute to Cang Jie"[46])
  • English Language Day at the UN: April 23 ("the date traditionally observed as the birthday of William Shakespeare"[47])
  • French Language Day at the UN: March 20 (corresponding to the Journée internationale de la Francophonie[48])
  • Russian Language Day at the UN: June 6 (the birthday of Aleksandr Pushkin)[43][42]
  • Spanish Language Day at the UN: October 12 (celebrated in the Spanish-speaking world as "Día de la Hispanidad" or "Día de la Raza"; compare Columbus Day)[49][43]

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

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.[citation needed] The French are the most strenuous advocates for the all-languages parity rule.[citation needed]

The next largest international grouping after the UN is the Commonwealth of Nations which is exclusively English speaking. All other international bodies in commerce, transport and sport have tended to the adoption of one language as the means of communication. This is usually English, closely followed by French. Regional groups have adopted what is common to other elements of their ethnic or religious background; 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 this version of the equivalent article on the French Wikipedia.

See also


  1. ^ "Plea to UN: 'More Spanish please'". BBC News. 2001-06-21. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  2. ^ "Letter dated 18 June 2001". 2001-06-18. Retrieved 2010-01-26. 
  3. ^ Resolution 63/100 Questions relating to information (5 December 2008).
  4. ^ Resolution 63/306 Multilingualism (9 September 2009).
  5. ^ Resolution A/RES/59/266 Human resources management (23 December 2004).
  6. ^ "Multilingualism". United Nations Secretary-General. 2010-10-04. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  7. ^ "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. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  8. ^ General Assembly Resolution 2 (I) Rules of Procedure Concerning Languages, 1 February 1946.
  9. ^ "Preparation of Multilingual Treaties: Memorandum by the Secretariat". 1966. p. 4. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  10. ^ Resolution 262 (III)
  11. ^ "Preparation of Multilingual Treaties: Memorandum by the Secretariat". 1966. p. 4. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  12. ^ Robert Reford (1968-12-18). "Russian to be included as UN working language". Ottawa Citizen.,651877. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  13. ^ 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)
  14. ^ Resolution 3189 (XXVIII) Inclusion of Chinese among the working languages of the General Assembly and the Security Council (18 December 1973)
  15. ^ Resolution 3190 (XXVIII) Inclusion of Arabic among the official and the working languages of the General Assembly and its Main Committees (18 December 1973)
  16. ^ Resolution 3191 (XXVIII) Inclusion of Chinese among the working languages of the General Assembly, its committees and its subcommittees and inclusion of Arabic aong 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
  17. ^ Resolution 35/219 Use of Arabic in the subsisdiary 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).
  18. ^ Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council Rules 41 to 47.
  19. ^ Rules of Procedure of the Economic and Social Council rules 32 to 35.
  20. ^ Subir Bhaumik (2009-12-22). "Bengali 'should be UN language'". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  21. ^ Bhaumik, Subir (2009-12-22). "Bengali 'should be UN language'". BBC News. Retrieved 2010-05-20. 
  22. ^ "International Auxiliary Language: Document presented by the Transnational Radical Party and Esperanto International Federation". Archived from the original on 2003-01-16. Retrieved 2003-01-16. 
  23. ^ "A Second Language for Everyone". Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  24. ^ Leslie Alan Horvitz (1997-09-29). "Advocates of Esperanto continue to lobby for their lingua franca". Insight on the News.;col1. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  25. ^ "Hindi in UNO". 2009-12-11. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  26. ^ "Government working actively for Hindi as official language of UN: S M Krishna". 2009-12-10. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  27. ^ "Hindi at UN: India to take action to get official status". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 2007-07-15. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  28. ^ K. Chezhian (2007-09-01). "Hindi in United Nations". Tamil Tribune. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  29. ^ Larry Rohter (2006-10-23). "At Long Last, a Neglected Language Is Put on a Pedestal". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  30. ^ "Lusophone bloc mobilises to make Portuguese a UN language". The Portugal News Online. 2008-10-04. Retrieved 2010-01-26. 
  31. ^ Barry Hatton (2008-05-17). "Portugal's lawmakers accept Brazilian version of language". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2010-01-26. 
  32. ^ "Erdogan meets U.N. SG Ban Ki-moon". Anadolu Agency. 2011-09-23. Retrieved 2011-10-30. 
  33. ^ Resolution 54/64 adopted 6 December 1999.
  34. ^ Multilingualism: Report of the Secretary-General Doc. A/56/656, para. 4.]
  35. ^ "Secretary-General Appoints Assistant Secretary-General Federico Riesco Coordinator for Multilingualism". 2000-09-08. Retrieved 2010-01-30. 
  36. ^ Multilingualism: Report of the Secretary-General Doc. A/56/656, para. 4.]
  37. ^ "Secretary-General Appoints Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor Coordinator for Multilingualism". 2003-03-31. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  38. ^ Resolution 54/64 Multilingualism (6 December 1999).
  39. ^ "United Nations Information Centres Launch Redesigned Website Telling Organization's Story in 130 Languages". 2008-10-24. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  40. ^ "Secretary-General Appoints Under-Secretary Kiyo Akasaka as Coordinator for Multilingualism". 2008-05-29. Retrieved 2010-01-25. 
  41. ^ "Department of Public Information to Launch ‘Language Days at the United Nations’" (Press release). United Nations. 2010-02-19. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  42. ^ a b "First-ever French language day celebrated at UN". UN News Centre. 2010-03-19. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  43. ^ a b c "United Nations Observances — Multilingualism". Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  44. ^ Chen Wen (2010-11-15). "UN Celebrates First Chinese Language Day". Beijing Review. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  45. ^ "Chinese Language Day" (in Chinese). Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  46. ^ "UN celebrates Chinese Language Day with art and exhibitions"". 2011-04-20. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  47. ^ "English Language Day at the United Nations, 23 April 2011". Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  48. ^ "L'ONU célèbre la Journée de la langue française" (in French). 2011-03-21. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  49. ^ "Spanish Language Day to be celebrated at HQ on Tuesday, 12 October 2010". deleGATE. 2010-10-11. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  50. ^ "Rules of Procedure of the General Conference". 2010. , Rule 54
  51. ^ "Universal Postal Union — Languages". Universal Postal Union. Retrieved 2010-08-03. 
  52. ^ "Rules of Procedure of the Governing Council".!05govco.pdf. Retrieved 2010-08-03. , Rule 20
  53. ^ "Rules of Procedure of the Executive Board".!06exboa.pdf. Retrieved 2010-08-03. , Rule 26

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