The United Nations: Is Language Just Part of the Plumbing?

This post was contributed by Dr Lisa J. McEntee-Atalianis, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Dr Lisa McEntee-AtalianisSince the first General Assembly Resolution 2 (I) in 1946, the United Nations (UN) has championed multilingualism and cultural diversity through the promotion and support of six official languages and a varied number of working languages for its work within its Headquarters in New York, its various agencies and in its outreach and fieldwork.

In its most recent resolution the UN reiterates its commitment to multilingualism, noting that the General Assembly:

‘Recogniz[es] that the United Nations pursues multilingualism as a means of promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally, Recogniz[es] also that genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding, and recognizing the importance of the capacity to communicate to the peoples of the world in their own languages, including in formats accessible to persons with disabilities, [and] stress[es] the need for strict observance of the resolutions and rules establishing language arrangements for the different bodies and organs of the United Nations…’ (65/311: 1)

However despite this de jure set up the de facto reality has seen a continued imbalance in the support given to these languages and in the linguistic practices of its membership, who have overwhelmingly favoured English.

Attempts have been made at Headquarters to redress this imbalance through rigorous inspections of the status of multilingual implementation across the system and via internal processes of review and reform across its organisations; the most recent precipitated by an inspection in 2011.

The UN has been vociferous in its continued support of multilingual provision citing its commitment to cultural and linguistic diversity. However increasing financial and administrative burdens, global challenges and realities have led to the emergence of regulations, recommendations and practices that run counter to this ideal. Moreover some argue that its language policy is somewhat ‘outdated’ and discriminatory given that a number of official languages spoken by Member States who joined subsequent to the initial policy formation fail to be recognised, forcing diplomats into negotiating positions in which they may not have the linguistic ‘upper hand’.

In a forthcoming publication (McEntee-Atalianis, in print) I detail the contemporary concerns of the UN with respect to their language policy and provision and relay findings from recent ethnographic and desk work carried out within the organisation.

The current system needs to be revised in order to foster a variety of language regimes across the ecology of the organisation. I presented these recommendations, with a specific focus on the role of member ‘agency’ in language policy formation for international organisations, at the recent ‘Symposium on Language and Exclusion’ hosted by the ‘Study Group on Language and the UN’ in New York last week, along with a number of other contributions from international scholars and UN language personnel who explored the role of language in the various activities of the UN (e.g. in international peacekeeping).

Contributors to the symposium discussed whether language has indeed just become ‘part of the plumbing’ within the organisation – a taken-for-granted resource used mechanistically – without regard for its power to include or exclude stakeholders, members and individuals in the field.

The overwhelming conclusion was that whilst the organisation has made some strides since its last inspection report (as detailed in A/69/282), it still has a long way to go to reform its current policy and practices to ensure it meets its goal of linguistic equity.

Like many organisations however the UN is difficult to penetrate. It has an established ‘Outreach’ programme and has Memoranda of Understanding with a number of academic institutions (in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas) but these MoUs are predominantly established to train language personnel in order to subsequently service the organisation in its official and working languages. Recommendations were made for the UN to extend its mandate in order to work with academics to support internal and external operations and nurture linguistic regimes suitable for contemporary international/transnational demands.

It is time to extend the plumbing metaphor, to envisage and prioritise language as THE vital resource fundamental to the functioning of the system, not just a necessary installation.

  • McEntee-Atalianis, L.J. (in print) ‘Multilingualism and the Unitied Nations: Diplomatic Baggage or Passport to Success?’ In Ulrike Jessner & Claire Kramsch (Eds.) Multilingualism: The Challenges. Trends in Applied Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

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