The Six Official Languages Used by the UN

February 14, 2023
The Six Official Languages Used by the UN

The United Nations (UN) exists to promote unity and prevent global conflict. Language plays a huge role in this and there are six United Nations official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. These official languages of the United Nations are used for the delivery of almost all UN documents.

The six official languages of the United Nations are key to the organization’s work because, as the UN website states, they enable “clear and concise communication on issues of global importance.”

 

Why Is French an Official Language of the United Nations?

French is one of five United Nations languages established as the UN General Assembly’s official tongues on February 1, 1946. Alongside English, French was also chosen as one of the two original working languages of the United Nations.

France is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The French language was globally relevant when the United Nations was founded and remains so today. According to Ethnologue, it is the fifth most spoken language in the world, with 274 million French speakers spread around the globe. As a first language, French has around 77.2 million speakers. Between France’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council and the widespread use of French around the globe, it was a clear choice as an official language of the UN.

French is spoken in 29 independent nations as an official or de facto language, 20 of them in Africa. In the US, there are 12 million French speakers, and French is the second most spoken language in three states (Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire) and the third most spoken in two (Connecticut and Rhode Island).

French is derived from Latin. It was the language of European culture and politics in the 17th century, and from there it spread to Latin America, Canada, Africa, and elsewhere. Today it is one of the core languages of United Nations work.

 

How Did Arabic Become the Latest Official Language of UN Business?

The latest official language of UN operations, Arabic became an official and working language of the General Assembly and its main committees in 1973 and of the Security Council in 1982.

From its roots in Arabia, Arabic spread along with the growth of Islam, to the point where knowledge of Classical Arabic was expected of both Muslims and non-Muslims of the higher classes by the 8th century.

Today, Modern Standard Arabic is the sixth most spoken language in the world, according to Ethnologue, with 273.9 million speakers. It is an official language (or co-official language) in 25 countries as well as being one of the official languages in the United Nations. The United States is home to 900,000 Arabic speakers, with particular concentrations in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

 

The Role of English as an Official UN Language

One of the three most spoken languages of the world, English has been an official language and one of the United Nations working languages since the organization’s inception.

According to Ethnologue, English has 1.452 billion speakers globally. It is an official language in 67 countries and a further 27 non-sovereign entities. It is also spoken in many other countries, despite not having official language status in them. In the US, which doesn’t have any official languages, 78% of the population speaks English as their mother tongue.

The British Empire was influential in spreading the English language around the world. The fact that many people consider it to be the easiest language to learn, due to its lack of cases, gender, word agreement and more, has also supported the spread of English. In more recent years, the widespread use of English on the Internet has also contributed to its growing number of speakers.

As one of the six official languages of the United Nations, English helps the organization communicate in a huge range of locations around the globe.

 

Is Chinese the Hardest Language to Learn in the UN?

In terms of native speakers, Chinese is the most spoken UN language, with 1.3 billion first language speakers. Including those who speak Chinese as a second or third language, it comes a close second to English in terms of global usage.

One key difference between the two languages, though, is that Chinese is spoken in a much more concentrated area: it is an official language in only China, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Singapore, though it is spoken natively in a further 20 countries by at least part of the population.

In terms of the official UN languages, Chinese vies with Arabic for the crown of hardest language to learn. According to the US Foreign Services Institute (FSI), both Mandarin and Cantonese are “category V” languages, which mean they are “exceptionally difficult” for English speakers to learn. Arabic is also a category V language, according to the FSI.

From China, the Sino-Tibetan Chinese has spread to Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. It is also spoken by 12.3% of the population of Thailand and by 0.9% of the population in the US.

 

Why Russian Is One of the 6 Official Languages of United Nations Business

Another of the 6 official languages of the United Nations, Russian has been an official language of the Security Council since 1946, a working language of the General Assembly since 1968, and a working language of the Security Council since 1969.

Russia’s geographic spread results from the former Soviet Union. Today, Russian is an official language in four countries: Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Russian speakers can also be found in many countries in eastern Europe, including Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Countries as geographically diverse as China, Cyprus, Finland, Hungary, Israel, Mongolia, and Poland are also home to Russian speakers, along with the United States, which is home to around 900,000 of them.

Altogether, around 258 million people speak Russian, making it the world’s eighth most spoken language.

 

Spanish’s Role as One of the 6 Languages of the United Nations

No discussion of how many countries are in the United Nations or how many different languages there are would be complete without touching on Spanish. Spanish was one of the original official languages of the UN and has been a working language of the General Assembly since 1948 and of the Security Council since 1969.

As the world’s fourth most spoken language, with 548 million speakers according to Ethnologue, Spanish is hugely relevant to the work of the UN, both when it was founded and in modern times.

The Spanish language rose to global prominence from the 16th century onwards, when Spanish seafarers took it with them to their settlements in southern and central America.  Globally, Spanish is now an official language in 20 countries, 18 of which are in Latin America. In addition, 17% of the US population is Hispanic and 38.3 million people there speak Spanish as their primary language at home (along with a further 3.6 million Spanish speakers in Puerto Rico).

 

On Language and Translation

When we consider how many languages are in the world, the fact that the original five official languages of the United Nations has only increased to six over the nearly 70 years since the organization was founded shows just how widespread the use of those languages is. However, that’s not to say that of all the official languages in the world, the UN only uses six. Far from it. Instead, a huge translation network delivers the organization’s content in many more languages, with some used routinely for other tasks.

This begs the question: What are the official languages of the United Nations used for? In addition to documentation used during meetings, the organization undertakes a huge range of communications, including distributing news items and publishing updates in various languages. News items, for example, are routinely translated into Portuguese. Other frequently used languages include Bengali, Hindi, Malay, Swahili, and Turkish, along with numerous other languages spoken by the 193 United Nations member states–all in addition to the six official languages United Nations members use.

In total, the UN’s Text Processing Units translate more than 450,000 pages of documentation every year. The scale of the translation operation required to deliver this is immense. It is also vitally important for the delivery of the UN’s peacekeeping work around the globe.

 

By Louise Taylor

Louise Taylor is a professional freelance writer who has been fascinated by languages since childhood. She holds qualifications in Spanish, French, German and Latin, as well as her native English.

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