Thursday, April 28, 2016

Official languages of international organizations

Not just in today's globalized world, but whenever more cultures or nations sit together behind one table, languages surely represent a very important part of national and cultural identities to be respected among all partners. Usage of languages, or the constitution of official languages within international organisations or treaties, suggests the importance and respect to each associate, and also reflects their history and "genesis". 

United Nations Headquarters.
Source: AdobeStock.com

But it also indirectly underscores the trouble of translation, interpretation and localization of official material into all the "official" languages of a particular organization. Not just within the regular operation of these organizations – such as the United Nations (UN), or European Union (EU) – but also in lesser contexts by manufacturers and language suppliers who wish to supply to such organizations face headaches. A case in point is all the languages they need to describe their products in when trying to sell in the EU. 
So what languages are these?

Languages of the United Nations

There are currently six official languages, used in all official documents of the UN (the documents are not even published until available in all official languages), as well as in meetings of the various UN organs, such as the General Assembly, Security Council, etc.: Arabic, Chinese (Simplified), English (British), French, Russian and Spanish.
The UN supplies mutual interpretation of the above-mentioned languages during these meetings, but if a state representative wants to speak in another language, one needs to provide translation into one of the official UN languages. The truth is that English has been preferred in communication at the expense of omitting the other five languages, an issue that has been subject to continuous public criticism. Focus on the language parity and multilingualism was supported even in the adoption of the Resolution on Multilingualism by the General Assembly in 2011.

Languages of the European Union

The number of EU languages rises whenever the Union expands, although the number of member states does exceed the number of the official languages. The first official languages of, at that time, the European Community (1958) were Dutch, French, German and Italian. Interestingly English was excluded then and did not become an official EU language until 1973.


Currently, there are 24 official EU languages, but also several others with the status of so-called co-official or semi-official language (Basque, Catalan, Galician, Scottish, Welsh).
Unlike the UN, when meetings are held among EU member states, all participants are allowed to use their own language – this is because the EU maintains the policy that every EU citizen has the right to communicate and access all EU documents in one of the official EU languages (this extends also to consumer information, e.g. in product manuals, safety information, etc., turning these into an additional cost issue, albeit with great marketing potential, to manufacturers entering the huge European Union market).


The European Commission itself actually operates the largest language service in the world to cover all the aspects of this language policy. A service that is very open to the general public with shared documents in almost any imaginable field and often a treasure trove to language aficionadi.





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