The Six Official Languages of the United Nations

Everyone knows that as a world organization, nothing symbolizes unity, cooperation and understanding more than the United Nations. Better known as the UN, the United Nations is an international organization founded in 1945, at the heels of the Second World War. The UN was intended to replace its predecessor, The League of Nations, by providing a platform for dialogue among its now 193 member nations. The six official languages of the United Nations are used in conducting business.

The primary aims of the UN are to promote security and international law, protect human rights and push for economic development and social progress in its member nations in the hopes of achieving lasting peace in the world.

Effective communication is key

With such lofty goals in mind set against such a backdrop of diversity, open and effective communication is of utmost importance in order to be able to coordinate all the member nations. This is why the United Nations has official languages at its arsenal.

After all, if they can’t even agree on what language to use when communicating, how else can the members strive to realize their great and very ambitious ideals and goals? One of the basics of effective communication is being able to speak the same language in order to properly understand one another.

The six official languages of the United Nations

The United Nations uses six official and working languages in conducting business: these are English, French, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, and Russian.

During meetings, speeches are simultaneously interpreted into all the six official languages by UN interpreters and are relayed to the delegates.

Also, all documents released by the UN must be printed in all six official languages.

Those who speak Portuguese may be wondering why their language isn’t on the list, the same way those who speak Italian, German or even Swahili may be thinking. In fact, even the members of the UN sometimes feel that the UN uses English more than the other five listed languages.

Majority rules

Combined, these languages are spoken by some 2.8 billion people in the world. Spoken as either a primary or secondary language, the majority of the world’s population use any of these six. In fact, almost half of the population of the world use any of these six languages are their official language.

As with anything, majority rules.

The French and English started it

In the early years of the UN, there were five official languages, English, French, Russian, Chinese and Spanish. However, English and French were deemed the two working languages.

By 1948, Spanish was designated a UN working language, followed by Russian in 1968.

In 1973, Arabic was later added as an official working language, along with Chinese.

Future possibilities

With the world population growing and people continuing to evolve, it’s possible that other languages may be designated as official and working languages of the UN.

Bengali may one day be an official spoken language. It is now the fifth or sixth most spoken language in the world. Portuguese, Hindustani and even Turkish have been proposed at some point.

Photo Credit: The United Nations Building in NY