United Nations building in Geneva

The 6 Official UN Languages

People interested in languages also tend to be people interested in international affairs.

And for people interested in the international affairs, the UN tends to be seen as a gleaming castle on a hill.

It’s the gold standard not only of diplomacy, but of linguistic skills. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, as they say.

So if you’re asking yourself, “what language should I learn?” maybe one of the 6 official UN languages may be the right choice for you.


What Are the 6 Official Languages of the United Nations?

As you most likely already gleaned from the title of this article, there are in fact six languages used officially at the United Nations: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

For the most part, these languages being the official ones makes sense, since they include some of the most widely spoken languages in the world. However, there’s also a clear political history behind the choice of these six languages.

In 1946, just following the establishment of the UN, all of the current official languages except Arabic were adopted as official languages, and English and French were adopted as working languages.

There are a couple things to unpack here. First of all, besides Spanish, all of these languages can be matched directly to permanent members of the Security Council who hold veto power (the U.S., Britain, China, Russia and France), which is to say that the languages that became official languages were the languages of the most politically influential and powerful nations in post-war period. Presumably Spanish was included because it’s the second most spoken language in the world by native speakers.

The second thing to notice here is that, until 1948 when Spanish was added, only English and French were the working languages of both the General Assembly and the Security Council. The difference is that working languages are the languages of “day-to-day professional exchanges” while the official languages are the languages in which all official documents must be written.

The other languages of the UN were also gradually introduced as working languages to the General Assembly and Security Council, often coinciding with major political happenings:

  • Russian became a working language of both the assembly and the council in 1968-1969 following the Brezhnev Doctrine, a doctrine that asserted the right of the Soviet Union to intervene abroad.
  • A few years later, Chinese achieved the status of a working language, following on the heels of the People’s Republic of China being recognized as a permanent member of the Security Council after Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 to ease tensions with the communist country.
  • Arabic managed to negotiate its way to being an official language by having the Arabic-speaking members of the UN agree to pay the costs of introducing the language for three years.

What About All of the Other Languages?

Okay, so maybe there are only six languages at the UN, but they’re such common and geographically diverse languages that most people in the world will speak at least one of them anyways, right? Not quite.

If we look at a list of the total speakers for each of the six official languages and add them up to get a rough estimate we’ll see that UN official languages account for less than half of the world’s population. Less than half of the people in the world can understand the documents and agreements being issued from the highest international political body in the world.

With half of the world’s population still out of the loop, you would think there would be some push back. And there is.

Hindi may be the most likely to gain status in the near future. With the fifth largest number of total speakers in the world, just ahead of Russian, it makes sense on paper. For those with a practical bent, money is also no obstacle as the Indian government has declared its willingness to cover the necessary expenses. The main reason for it not being included up to this point seems to be the relative isolation of the language, restricted as it is to the Indian subcontinent. One might be prone to believe that this is just a political exercise to extend India’s growing influence since the general impression of India is that its people have a high level of English fluency, but it has been reported that many people in India speak no English whatsoever.

Running down the list of possible candidates, there’s also Bengali with 250 million speakers worldwide, Portuguese (whose total number of speakers is sandwiched between Russian and Bengali and is more geographically diverse than either of these) and Turkish, though in this case, there’s no official push towards official language status.

Even the inclusion of all of these languages would still leave a broad swath of the world’s population outside of the scope of the official UN languages, but the inclusion of any one of them would significantly change who has access to the primary documents of the UN.

How to Become a UN Linguist

All this talk of languages is great, of course, but why does it matter to you? Because this could be your job.

To acquire a prized position among translators and interpreters, you’ll first have to pass one of the UN’s competitive language examinations. If you apply and manage to make it through the process, which takes several months, you’ll be put on a list and called up when they need someone to fill a position.

However, this is just the general outline for applying to language-related positions. The specific job type that you end up targeting will determine any other requirements. For instance, if you want to be an interpreter of French, English, Spanish or Russian, you have to know not one but two other languages fairly well. Then on top of that, there are the other formidable demands that are placed on UN interpreters, such as being able to translate subject matter on topics as diverse as finance and human rights on demand with little or no hesitation.

And if you think translation—that is, translating the written word—might be easier since there’s less pressure, just remember that translated documents are often cited by the media or incorporated into legislation. Not that this is a bad thing. Many of us would love to have that level of civic involvement and influence. But doing translation at the UN is certainly not for the faint of heart.

If you’ve got the chutzpah to try out for the UN linguist team but you want to get your foot in the door first, consider participating in one of their internship programs. Ability only goes so far sometimes and getting your dream job may be easier when you have a few connections.

How to Become a UN Language Instructor

Maybe you’re not the greatest foreign language speaker. Native English speakers are notorious for being slow to pick up other languages and it certainly doesn’t help that English is so widespread across the globe. If this is you, then take heart. There’s another way.

When most native English speakers decide they want to travel around for a year or two, often times they choose to take up teaching English. Being such a global language, English is in demand just about everywhere. What most people don’t consider is making this into an actual career path. Your adventurous summer of teaching in Italy, Thailand or Brazil could easily become the foundation of something much bigger.

At the UN, language teachers are required to have at least five years of experience along with an advanced degree related to language learning or linguistics. Sure, that might sound like a lot, but you could spend those five years teaching in two or three different countries while you soak up the culture. And, of course, there would be few places better to actualize a desire to be an amazing teacher of English than with the UN.

Enjoy the Perks of Working at the UN

To survive in the top-tier work environment of the UN, you undoubtedly need to enjoy your job, whether as a language instructor or as a linguist. But if you’re willing to weather some of the rougher aspects of the trade, then you’ll have some nice goodies coming your way, too.

For starters, linguists (translators and interpreters) are often able to enjoy the flexibility of freelance work while participating in a significant way in international efforts at cooperation. Not to mention, you’ll get to learn some of the less common dialects of your chosen languages as you are in contact with people from around the world.

Then there’s the continued opportunity to live abroad. While many people often picture the UN headquarters in New York City when they think of the UN, there are also UN offices in Geneva, Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Hamburg, Rome, the Hague, Oslo, Barcelona and London in Europe, Nairobi and Addis Ababa in Africa, Beirut in the Middle East, Santiago, Montreal and Washington in the Americas and Bangkok, Tokyo and Hanoi in Asia.

Still not adventurous enough for you? As actual UN job postings indicate, there’s always the potential for something more challenging (for instance, teaching English in Djibouti on the coast of East Africa).

But of course, someone who’s so strongly motivated by success and achievement that they’d want to work at the UN might want to eventually move up from being an English teacher or linguist. Thankfully, these jobs can serve as a springboard to something even greater. Although there’s a requirement that one work for at least five years as a linguist or a teacher, after that period the path upward is wide open.

The UN, that flaming beacon of internationalism and gold standard of linguistic skills, is not as impenetrable as the castle was for the peasant.

So how do you go about it? Locate resources for your target language today, with an emphasis on authentic content (believe me, UN interpreting and translating can get a little too authentic sometimes!). So find anything from TV series to TED talks, and see what works for you. 

You might want to use a virtual immersion platform as well. If so, one option is FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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