In December, the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a United Nations-affiliated institution with 153 member countries, was held in Geneva, Switzerland.
It came to a close with the Chairman's Concluding Statement, a document running to seven A4 pages. The WTO's three working languages are English, French, and Spanish, but the statement was issued only in English to reporters and diplomats at the end of the conference.
"All drafts are prepared in English. If you're not proficient, you won't be taken seriously as a diplomat," reveals an ambassador from Asia who was involved in the WTO negotiations.
In diplomatic talks where close scrutiny is given to subtle differences in nuances, such as the decision to use a colon or a semicolon, or singular or plural forms, the reality is that if you do not have a strong command of English, it will be difficult for you to reflect the national interests of your country.
Around 30 international institutions and 200 international nongovernmental organizations are based in Geneva, a Francophone city in a country with four official languages.
In supermarkets and cafes, French is the norm.
Guards at the United Nations Office greet visitors with a "Bonjour." But once inside, English dominates.
By the United Nations Charter and a General Assembly resolution, English, Chinese, French, Russian, Arabic, and Spanish are designated as official languages. The equal status of these six languages is constantly emphasized, and a resolution confirming the organization's multilingualism was adopted at the General Assembly in August 2011 for the purpose of promoting unity within diversity.
However, according to a U.N. official, in actual negotiations, it is not efficient to constantly interpret jargon and other special terms into six languages, so English is used exclusively at all times, apart from final documents.
Whatever negotiations may be, whether it is a negotiation over a Human Rights Council resolution or the drafting of treaty protocols, simultaneous interpretation into the United Nations' six official languages is always provided at official sessions.
But, even so, when negotiations drag on and interpreters cannot be retained for budgetary reasons, every diplomat suddenly begins speaking in fluent English, regardless of the language they had been speaking up until that point.
Naturally, languages that are vestiges of colonial eras, such as French in West Africa and Spanish in Central and South America, are useful for building relationships between diplomats. It is common to see them speaking surreptitiously in French during toilet breaks, and it is said that the ability to speak languages other than English facilitates deeper diplomatic relations. However, even an ambassador-level diplomat from a non-Anglophone country says: "Languages other than English are ultimately regional languages. Doesn't it make you happy to hear the language of the place you were born?"
English and French are the U.N.'s working languages. However, according to a report compiled in 2010 by the U.N. Secretariat, the usage rate of a French-language internal network in featuring U.N. information was only 4 percent that of the rate for English. "This raises questions of sustainability," the report said.
Emphasis on English is conspicuous even in recruting U.N. staff.
"If I were to hire a staff member, I'd choose a person with good English ability," admits a French-national U.N. official based in Geneva.
Recruitment notices on the U.N.'s official website are naturally written in both English and French. Nevertheless, on close inspection, they are often found to include the following words.
"English is essential for this post. French is desirable."
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