After two weeks in my new position at the World Health Organization, I finally solidified my status as an intern by paying a visit to the Ekonomat to receive my souvenir glass. To promote sustainability, the WHO follows like-minded organizations by promoting reusable glasses opposed to disposable cups.
A kind man accepted the hard copy I brought of this precious invitation (my email of approval allotting: one glass). He gloomily informed me that the only choices he had available were Russian, Chinese, or Arabic, as the other more popular languages were gone. I went with the Chinese version of “I am not a plastic cup!” as my one and only (complimentary) souvenir.
Upon returning to my office, my colleague and fellow intern curiously eyed my souvenir, prompting me to ask which language he had on his cup. Jack, the tech savvy Japanese pharmacist who had been working in an intern capacity for eight months, responded that he had an English cup.
Counting off the official languages of the UN in my head: French, English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and Russian, I asked him why there is no Japanese cup?
His response, though good-natured was candid. He explained that Japanese is not an official language of the UN because Japan lost in World War II. The winners were rewarded, and other languages incorporated subsequently, but those who lost the Second World War continue to be punished. No Japanese, no German, no Italian.
I responded that such a claim would compromise impartiality, a core UN principle of peacekeeping, and the choice of languages must be instead based on a proportion of the global population who use a given language, while wasting no time in following through with the unfortunate reality of all students of my generation; I googled the official languages of the UN, looking for their origins.
Sure enough, the six languages of the UN are the first or second language for 2.8 billion people, or less than half of the world’s population. While there was no mention (that I could find) of punishing those who came out worse for wear in WWII, the 1945 date for the Charter of the United Nations certainly does nothing to wash Jack’s claim. (He also noted that English websites were less likely to include this piece of Intel).
Few languages are in talks of being added to the official repertoire, including but not limited to Portuguese, Esperanto, Bengali, Hindustani, and Turkish.
However, criticisms abound that the six languages slow down, rather than benefit official proceedings. Critics often cite the high costs for translation and interpretation, while emphasizing unfunded projects where the funds should instead be allotted.
On the other side, many find it unfair that some officials have the advantage of addressing the council in their native language, while so many others do not.
How then, can such a large and all encompassing multilateral system effectively exert global governance through linguistic harmony?
Proposals range across the board, from adopting an EU strategy of incorporating the languages of all member states as official languages, to the sole adoption of one language, such as the the politically neutral Esperanto.
However, if history is any indication, things won’t be changing any time soon☼