United nations building

UN Languages

In Blog by Rafael Morel

With 193 member states, the UN is a global forum of nations. One of the world’s most recognized and influential organizations strives for humanity’s progress and well-being.

The UN brings nations together to work on global issues. You may wonder how so many nationalities with different languages communicate with each other. Translators and interpreters are the answer.

The UN has six official languages - Spanish, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Arabic that are mainly used during the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and the Security Council meetings.

Accurate translation within these six languages, both oral and written, is essential for the Organization’s work, ensuring clear communication on global matters. Let’s take a look at all six languages.

Spanish

Spanish is one of the six official UN languages. It is a powerful tool for transnational communication, which occupies a privileged position within the organization.

More than 500 million people in the world (the number is growing each year) speak Spanish. Being the official language in 20 countries, Spanish remains one of the most influential languages, especially when it comes to business.

The use of the Spanish language is spreading steadily throughout the world, as well as its importance, expanding in traditional areas and in such fields as communications, science, technology, accessibility, and innovation.

April 23rd is Spanish Language Day at the UN. Language days are essential for celebrating multilingualism and cultural diversity and promoting equal use of all six languages throughout the Organization.

Chinese

The second official UN language on the list is Chinese. About 1.3 billion people speak it as their first language. Specifically, Mandarin Chinese, the most widely spoken dialect, has 909 million first-language speakers from 13 countries.

There is also Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Macau, and North America; Hokkien, used in Fújiàn, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore; Wu, spoken in Suzhou, Wenzhou, and Hangzhou. What is more, each of the dialects has sub-dialects as well.

You may ask, ‘How, with all the differences in both spoken varieties and written symbols, is the language used at the United Nations?’ Translators and interpreters use simplified Chinese characters to ensure that language is unified.

The official Chinese Language Day is celebrated annually on April 20th in tribute to Cang Jie.

English

As an important medium for communication worldwide, English has been another official language of the United Nations since the body’s foundation.

Around 1.5 billion people, including native and non-native speakers worldwide, use English. It’s the official language of 59 sovereign states and 27 non-sovereign entities.

Together with French, it is also one of the official languages of the International Olympic Committee.

English remains the dominant language of not only international business but also political and diplomatic areas. Research worldwide shows that cross-border business communication is primarily conducted in English, and many international companies expect employees to be fluent in the language.

English Language Day is marked on April 23rd, coinciding with one of the most famous English playwrights, William Shakespeare’s birthday and date of death.

French

Together with English, French is the working language of the United Nations Secretariat and is used in day-to-day professional exchanges. It plays an important role in spreading the message of the United Nations to the world.

After Mandarin, English, Spanish, and Arabic, French, which has 300 million native speakers, is the world’s fifth most widely spoken language.

French is crucial for international relations and diplomacy. It is the official language of the International Olympic Committee. Apart from the United Nations, French is also the official language of international organizations such as UNESCO, the International Court of Justice, the European Union, NATO, and the International Red Cross (together with English and Spanish).

The United Nations marks French Language Day on March 20th.

Russian

Being in the ranks of UN official languages, Russian plays an important cultural and economical role.

With over 258 million speakers worldwide, Russian is the most spoken Slavic language. It is the official language in six countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, including Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Alongside English, Russian is also one of the two main languages spoken in the International Space Station.

June 6th, which coincides with the birthday of the father of the modern Russian language Aleksandr Pushkin, is UN Russian Language Day.

Arabic

Being the fifth most spoken language in the world, Arabic is a pillar of the cultural diversity of humanity.

One of the fastest-growing languages, Arabic, became official at the UN in 1973. Now it plays an immense cultural, spiritual, and scientific role worldwide.

Around 422 million people speak Arabic and its different dialects in over 25 countries, including Algeria, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Jordan, Chad, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, etc.

Arabic is a part of the Semitic language family, which uses a different set of characters and is written from right to left.

The language is mainly subdivided into three major versions: Quranic or Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and Colloquial or Daily Arabic. Even speakers between cities and villages struggle to understand each other’s dialects.

Arabic Language Day is celebrated on December 18th, the day it became an official language in the United Nations.

The Use of Languages in the UN Work

These six official UN languages are used at various thematic UN sessions, such as the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and the Security Council. The states’ representatives can express themselves in any of these six languages or speak in other languages.

At the same time, with the help of a professional translator, their language must be translated into one of the official languages. The United Nations provides simultaneous interpretation through an interpretation service.

All official international documentation is also issued in the six official languages. The legal act can’t be published until it’s translated into all official UN languages. Usually, the texts of the documents are equivalent in terms of authority.

The Bottom Line

For the time being, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, and Russian are the only six official languages of the UN, which are native to 2.8 billion people on the planet, that is, to almost half of the world’s population.

These languages are used in more than half of the world’s countries (about a hundred). The four official languages of the UN, Russian, English, French, and Spanish, are used mainly in Europe, as well as in North and South America.

Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan language group. It is the most common on the planet. Arabic is a Semitic language and is widely spoken in the countries of the Middle East.