child at a blackboard pointing at letters of the English alphabet
A student at the school at the Protection of Civilians site of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) in Juba learns his ABCs.
Photo:UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

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:

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.

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 works

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)

 

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.

Penguin Random House*

 

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. 

 

The English Language Programme

The English Language Programme (ELP) at the United Nations is offered to promote linguistic balance within the Secretariat by improving the English language skills of its staff and the staff of missions to the United Nations. The ELP at Headquarters offers regular core English courses (levels one through eight), which are designed to improve general English language proficiency, as well as communication courses and special courses to meet both the work-related needs and cultural interests of members of the United Nations community. 

Resources

letters coming out of pencil

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)

Afrolit Sans Frontieres


* Links to external websites are provided for information only and do not constitute endorsement by the United Nations.

 

A verbatim reporter at work

UN language staff come from all over the globe and make up a uniquely diverse multilingual community. What unites them is the pursuit of excellence in their respective areas, the excitement of being at the forefront of international affairs and the desire to contribute to the realization of the purposes of the United Nations, as outlined in the Charter, by facilitating communication and decision-making. They include Production editorsEditorsInterpretersTranslatorsVerbatim Reporters, Editorial and Desktop Publishing Assistants, and Language Reference Assistants. Visit our YouTube channel.

Gender-inclusive language

Given the key role that language plays in shaping cultural and social attitudes, using gender-inclusive language is a powerful way to promote gender equality and eradicate gender bias. Being inclusive from a gender language perspective means speaking and writing in a way that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes. These Guidelines include recommendations and materials, created to help United Nations staff use gender-inclusive language in any type of communication — oral or written, formal or informal — and are a useful starting point for anyone.

A crowd of women sitting and laughing

International days and weeks are occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity. The existence of international days predates the establishment of the United Nations, but the UN has embraced them as a powerful advocacy tool. We also mark other UN observances.