Proposal for the formation of an NGO Committee on Language and Languages to be based in New York

Fundamental to the work of the United Nations is the spoken and written word. The United Nations is a place of negotiation and action in which language and communication underlie everything that it does. The UN Secretariat works in two languages; the General Assembly works in six; the various members of the UN family have their own language policies, intended to promote inclusion. Beyond its official languages, the United Nations interacts with the public in a host of other languages. “We need to come together,” Secretary-General Guterres recently declared, “not only to talk but to listen.” Multilingualism is honoured and encouraged in the work of the United Nations.

Written into many international instruments created or promoted by the United Nations is the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of language. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stresses access to education, a right to enjoy one’s own culture, a right to a fair trial, and numerous other rights that are dependent on language.

There is currently no NGO committee that concerns itself with language and language policy, despite the fact that all international NGOs must grapple, to a greater or lesser extent, with language difference. And there are numerous NGOs directly concerned with the teaching of language, with interpretation and translation, and with communication with the public.

An NGO Committee on Language and Languages could give its attention to UN language policy, to the work of interpreters and translators, to the use of language in the field, and to numerous other aspects of language, among them also the preservation of endangered languages and the promotion of language learning.

Put in concrete terms, the proposed Committee will cover both language use at the UN (sexist language, the language of hate, the language of peace, human rights language) and the use of languages at the UN (provision of translation and interpretation, documentation, outreach to speakers of other languages, parity among languages, protection and promotion of indigenous languages, etc.).

There already exists an informal Study Group on Language and the United Nations, which organizes an annual symposium on language and the UN. The symposium is always well attended by NGO representatives, UN staff, diplomats, and academics. This Study Group could form the core of the proposed NGO committee.

Add your NGO endorsement to constitute this committee here.

Humphrey Tonkin
December 7, 2019