What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet"
Celebrating the English language at the UN
English Language Day at the UN is celebrated on 23 April, the date traditionally observed as both the birthday and date of death of William Shakespeare. The Day is the result of a 2010 initiative by the Department of Global Communications, establishing language days for each of the Organization's six official languages. The purpose of the UN's language days is to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity as well as to promote equal use of all six official languages throughout the Organization.
Under the initiative, UN duty stations around the world celebrate six separate days, each dedicated to one of the Organization's six official languages.
The days are as follows:
- Arabic (18 December)
- Chinese (20 April)
- English (23 April)
- French (20 March)
- Russian (6 June)
- Spanish (23 April)
Language Days at the UN aim to entertain as well as inform, with the goal of increasing awareness and respect for the history, culture and achievements of each of the six working languages among the UN community.
Multilingualism and the UN
An essential factor in harmonious communication among peoples, multilingualism is of particular importance to the United Nations. By promoting tolerance, multilingualism ensures effective and increased participation of all in the Organization’s work, as well as greater effectiveness, better outcomes and more involvement.
The balance among the six official languages has been an ongoing concern of the Secretary-General. Numerous activities have been undertaken, from 1946 to the present, to promote the use of the official languages to ensure that the United Nations, its goals and actions are understood by the widest possible public.
In its resolution 54/64 of 6 December 1999, the General Assembly invited the appointment of a senior Secretariat official to serve as coordinator of questions relating to multilingualism.
2021 Celebrations: focus on Africa
English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. For the 2021 celebrations of English Language Day, let's learn more about its presence in Africa and its interaction with African languages and arts.
Anglophone Africa in numbers
There are about two dozen African countries where English is spoken as an official language or widely used in education, administration, law, business, the mass media and literature, the top five (by number of inhabitants) gathering nearly 500 million people.
On the African continent, in addition to being a working language of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, English is also one of the official languages of the African Union and of many of Africa’s subregional organizations.
Anglophone African writers and orators
She wept now because she hadn’t been able to do so for seven years, as staying alive required parting with all familiar ways of living during the years when the guns took words out of the mouths of the elders.
- Excerpt from Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael Beah (Sierra Leone)
The night was very quiet. It was always quiet except on moonlight nights. Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string. And so on this particular night as the crier's voice was gradually swallowed up in the distance, silence returned to the world, a vibrant silence made more intense by the universal trill of a million million forest insects.
- Excerpt from Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
One human life is deeper than the ocean. Strange fishes and sea-monsters and mighty plants live in the rock-bed of our spirits. The whole of human history is an undiscovered continent deep in our souls. There are dolphins, plants that dream, magic birds inside us. The sky is inside us. The earth is in us.
- Excerpt from The Famished Road, by Ben Okri (Nigeria)
People in delirium rise and sink, rise and sink, in and out of lucidity. The swaying, shuddering, thudding, flinging stops, and the furniture of life falls into place. The vehicle was the fever. Chattering metal and raving dance of loose bolts in the smell of the children’s car-sick. She rose from it for gradually longer and longer intervals. At first what fell into place was what was vanished, the past. In the dimness and traced brightness of a tribal hut the equilibrium she regained was that of the room in the shift boss’s house on mine property she had had to herself once her elder sister went to boarding-school. Picking them up one by one, she went over the objects of her collection on the bookshelf, the miniature brass coffee-pot and tray, the four bone elephants, one with a broken trunk, the khaki pottery bulldog with the Union Jack painted on his back. A lavender-bag trimmed with velvet forget-me-nots hung from the upright hinge of the adjustable mirror of the dressing-table, cut out against the window whose light was meshed by minute squares of the wire flyscreen, clogged with mine dust and dead gnats. The dented silver stopper of a cut-glass scent bottle was cemented to the glass neck by layers and years of dried Silvo polish. Her school shoes, cleaned by Our Jim (the shift boss’s name was Jim, too, and so her mother talked of her husband as ‘My Jim’ and the house servant as ‘Our Jim’), were outside the door. A rabbit with a brown patch like a birthmark over one eye and ear was waiting in his garden hutch to be fed… As if the vehicle had made a journey so far beyond the norm of a present it divided its passengers from that the master bedroom en suite had been lost, jolted out of chronology as the room where her returning consciousness properly belonged: the room that she had left four days ago.
- Excerpt from July’s People, by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. We call on our people to seize this moment so that the process towards democracy is rapid and uninterrupted. We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts.
- Excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s speech on release from prison, 11 February 1990
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah (South Africa)
Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.
Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.
Laila Lalami (Morocco)
Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, the United Kingdom and the United States. She is the author of four novels, including The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and The Other Americans, which was a Los Angeles Times bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. Her essays and criticism have appeared in The Nation, Harper’s, the Washington Post and the New York Times. She has received fellowships from the British Council, the Fulbright Program and the Guggenheim Foundation and is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside. She lives in Los Angeles.
Zimbabwe women writers
As one of Africa’s smaller countries, Zimbabwe punches well above its weight in the literary arena, most impressively among women writers. A number of Zimbabwean women writers have gained considerable standing and renown abroad, such as Yvonne Vera, Petina Gappah, NoViolet Bulawayo, Paula Hawkins and Novuyo Tshuma. Notable acclaim has been earned by Tsitsi Dangarembga, whose classic story of coming of age in pre-independence Rhodesia – Nervous Conditions – has been taught in Zimbabwe schools for many years and is the first in a trilogy, the third part of which, This Mournable Body, was nominated for the 2020 Booker Prize. Interestingly, two of the best-known women writers of the twentieth century – Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing – while not born in Zimbabwe, spent their formative years and began their literary careers in that country.
Friday, 23 April 2021, 11:00am EST
The UN Chamber Music Society of the United Nations Staff Recreation Council (UNCMS) presents a virtual concert in celebration of the English and Spanish Language Days at the United Nations, which will celebrate the linguistic and cultural diversity of humanity, particularly through English and Spanish language and music.
2021 Events for UN staff
- Coordination of multilingualism
- United Nations Editorial Manual
- United Nations Multilingual Terminology Database (UNTERM)
- Competitive examinations for language professionals
- Language Learning at the UN
- The English Language Programme (ELP) at the United Nations
- Online language learning at the UN
- Language proficiency examination
- St. Jerome Translation Contest
- Dag Hammarskjöld Library
- UNOG Library Research Guide on Multilingualism
- UN Digital Library
- UN Social Media accounts #EnglishLanguageDay
For further reading*:
Best of 2020: the top books by African writers (Al Jazeera)
An interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Boston Review)
Review of How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue (The New York Times)
An interview with Tsitsi Dangarembga (The New York Times)
* Links to external websites are provided for information only and do not constitute endorsement by the United Nations.
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Partnering with African universities
The network of universities that have signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN on training language professionals for competitive examinations for language positions includes a number of African universities, including, in Anglophone Africa, the University of Nairobi.
Pan-African Masters Consortium in Interpretation and Translation
The Pan-African Masters Consortium in Interpretation and Translation aims to enable skilled and qualified African interpreters and translators to meet the demand for high-quality language services in Africa and on the world market.
In the first phase of the project, covering the period 2015–2019, PAMCIT included universities from Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Senegal and was serviced by a permanent secretariat operating from the United Nations Office at Nairobi, with funding from the European Commission.
For more information:
- Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM)
- The MoU network
- PAMCIT on the DGACM website
- PAMCIT on the European Commission Knowledge Centre on Interpretation