Skip to main content

50th Conference: Language Policy and the United Nations: Diplomatic Baggage or Passport to Success?

PhD student Alexandra Shaitan has written a blog about the Language Policy and the United Nations: Diplomatic Baggage or Passport to Success? talk.

Dr Lisa McEntee-Atalanis

Written by PhD student Alexandra Shaitan

Dr. McEntee-Atalianis, who was appointed to her current post at Birkbeck, University of London in 2009, is best known for her research in various areas of Applied Linguistics, including Language Pathology (Aphasia), Sign Language/Deaf Studies and Sociolinguistics. More recently, her research has focused broadly on issues of 'identity' at micro- and macro-linguistic levels. She has also been involved in an extensive investigation of language policy and practice at the United Nations, with a special interest in the International Maritime Organization, London (an agency of the United Nations). Moreover, she is a member of the Study Group on Language and the United Nations, New York.

Dr. McEntee-Atalianis delivered a very interesting paper on "Language Policy and the United Nations: diplomatic baggage or passport to success?" Before going into the details of the paper, it is worth providing an overview of the United Nations Organization (UN).

"...the United Nations can take action on the issues confronting humanity in the 21st century"

According to the United Nations' website, the United Nations is an international organization founded in 1945.  It is currently made up of 193 Member States.  The mission and work of the United Nations are guided by the purposes and principles contained in its founding Charter. Due to the powers vested in its Charter and its unique international character, the United Nations can take action on the issues confronting humanity in the 21st century, such as peace and security, climate change, sustainable development, human rights, disarmament, terrorism, humanitarian and health emergencies, gender equality, governance, food production and more.The UN also provides a forum for its members to express their views in the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and other bodies and committees. By enabling dialogue between its members, and by hosting negotiations, the Organization has become a mechanism for governments to find areas of agreement and solve problems together.

In regard to its language policy, the UN claims having six official languages. These are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. The correct interpretation and translation of these six languages, in both spoken and written form, is very important to the work of the Organization, because this enables clear and concise communication on issues of global importance. However, Dr. McEntee-Atalianis (2015 in print) questions whether multilingualism and multilingual provision at the UN is in fact diplomatic baggage or a passport to success. Based on an analysis of language policy and practice in the UN-system, and her longitudinal ethnographic and sociolinguistic study of its smallest agency, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Dr. McEntee-Atalianis brings to the attention existing tensions between organizational language policy and micro-language planning and its use, in which agency resides with the membership. In particular, she highlights the continued imbalance in multilingual provision/support and use -English dominance and argues that more attention should be paid to changing sociological dynamics and the role of member agency in policy development in inter/trans-national contexts.

"...development of robust analytic framework and methodologies"

As a solution to the language imbalance policy with the UN, Dr. McEntee-Atalianis makes proposals in finding a balance to support multilingualism within the UN. These include but do not limit: prioritizing the agency of the 'language user/s'; nurturing and supporting a dynamic ecology while emphasizing flexibility over rigid provision of sometimes-unexploited multilingual resources. In addition, she stresses out that any policy must address: "resource allocation and resource distribution (net gains and losses). Further proposal pays attention to the development of robust analytic framework and methodologies capable of modeling different scenarios appealing to different/opposing priorities, namely, cost, demo-linguistic constitution of personnel, field contingencies and capacity for interpretation/translation facilities. This, in turn, may require radically revising current systems in order to foster a variety of language regimes across the ecology of the organization.

To summarize, while I was aware of the UN and its mission throughout the world, I was not aware of the language imbalance within the organization. For me personally, as well as my peers (based on the discussion we had after the presentation), Dr. McEntee-Atalianis was able to engage the audience in her talk and impart a clear message related to currently-existing imbalanced language policy within the UN.


United Nations Language Policy.
United Nations Overview and its mission; accessed July 4, 2015.

More news about: