Some years ago I was advising a very talented Papua New Guinean student who had studied in Japan and wanted to work at the United Nations headquarters in New York. She had worked hard to become fluent in Japanese and assumed this would help her application. She was dismayed to learn that it didn’t, and that she would have to learn yet another language to apply to be a United Nations public servant.
What then are the official languages of the United Nations, and why isn’t Japanese, the language of such a rich and powerful country, not one of them? To answer this question we need to look at the history of the UN and the circumstances that led to its creation. It was started as a group of allied countries working together to defeat the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan in World War II. When the UN was officially organised, the languages of the three enemy nations were, of course, not thought to be important. Instead, the national languages of the major allied countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and China) were chosen, together with Spanish, the dominant language in the Americas. In this way English, French, Russian, Chinese, and Spanish became the five official languages of the major UN bodies after World War II. Two decades later, as the number of independent Arab countries increased, and oil wealth increased the influence these countries have in the world, they asked that Arabic be added to this list. The UN agreed to this, but on the condition that Arabic-speaking countries themselves pay for setting up the new interpreting and translation services required.
Any of these six languages can be used to give speeches or submit documents, and it is expected that any diplomat at the UN will be able to understand and use at least one of these languages. During deliberations, highly trained interpreters give simultaneous interpretations between these languages, which the delegates can listen to on headsets next to each seat. Persons such as visiting heads of state, who cannot use these languages must provide their own interpreters into one of the six official languages. All important documents are translated into these six languages. The day-to-day working languages are, however, English and French, so routine matters and public signage at UN headquarters are normally in these two languages only.
People working as permanent public servants at the UN must know two of the six official languages well enough to conduct official work in them. In actual fact, at least one of the two languages they know is almost always English or French. Many UN bureaucrats speak English, French, and one other official language of the UN General Assembly. The secretaries-general of the UN have always had a working knowledge of at least English and French. This is the case for the current United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres from Portugal, who easily switches between French, English, and his native Portuguese.
There are always UN positions in various parts of the world that hire on a contract basis and do not have this requirement. Someone working for a UN agency in Port Moresby can usually be hired knowing only English, and someone working on a UN development project in Angola might be required to know Portuguese, for example. But permanently hired UN public servants, especially those at the New York or Geneva headquarters, must meet these bilingual requirements inattentive least two of the six official UN languages.
The Papua New Guinean student I was counselling was going to have to do quite a bit of language study if she was going to be successful in her goal of obtaining a UN position. Her Japanese didn’t count, and her English fluency fit only one half of the language requirements.
Even though Papua New Guineans tend to learn languages quickly, there are almost no places in the country where they can formally learn a foreign language, especially one of the official UN languages other than English. This means that while a certain number of UN public service positions are set aside for each nationality, the PNG quota is not met because very few Papua New Guineans have the opportunity to learn French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, or Arabic.
This is not the case in many other developing countries with educational challenges similar to those in PNG. Students in those countries can learn foreign languages in high school or university and prepare themselves to become international bureaucrats. Educational planners in those countries realise that to work in an international bureaucracy, persons must have qualifications of an international standard, and that one of those is the ability to be bilingual in international languages, not only English. Until the Papua New Guinean education system meets this challenge in the same way that schools and universities in other developing countries do, Papua New Guineans will not be able to participate as fully on the world stage as they should. Papua New Guineans will continue to miss out and others will take the places set aside for them in the UN bureaucracy.