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A man doing Chinese calligraphy with paintbrush

ESCAP / Suwat Chancharoensuk

The Asia-Pacific region is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, with more than 3,000 documented languages. Multilingualism matters because it allows people to understand each other and enables us to collaborate towards a brighter future for all.

“Being one of the main vehicles of human communication, language permeates every aspect of the work of the United Nations. Language-related choices are made daily, either intentionally or unconsciously,” shares Movses Abelian, Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management, and Coordinator for Multilingualism, in a recent publication, Why it matters: Multilingualism at the United Nations.  

The United Nations has six official languages; Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish are used for official documents, meetings and conferences. Here in the Asia-Pacific region, the ESCAP Conference and Documentation Services Section (CDSS) works tirelessly to provide translation, interpretation and documentation services.

“Aside from the official languages used for the sake of convenience, we believe that other spoken languages are equally significant. So, we must protect linguistic diversity and help ensure the region continues to have this wonderful linguistic landscape,” enthuses Zheng Wang, a Chinese language translator at ESCAP.

Russian language translator Tatiana Maria Comerzan highlights the fast pace at which languages change and evolve. “For example, words like digitization and digitalization were often used interchangeably, but now the terms are separate. Initially there were no terms in Russian to describe that difference. You never learn language once; you have to keep up to date with the language and terminology in various areas.”

Working in language services at the UN can be challenging yet rewarding. Despite long hours during peak conference seasons, both Zheng and Tatiana express great pride and academic satisfaction in their work.

“Our work is often hidden and very much behind the scenes. Yet it does involve a lot of painstaking research and teamwork especially when agreeing on a term to use,” says Tatiana.

“It is important for me as a translator to practice self-discipline and rigorous quality assurance to hone my linguistic skills. I still listen to and read the news daily and actively scroll through social media to help retain my bilingual language intuition,” adds Zheng.

One of the first resolutions to be passed by the General Assembly outlined ground rules for multilingualism. In the decades since, multilingualism remains a critical part of the UN’s work and serves to promote inclusivity, diversity, greater transparency and the effective participation of all – ensuring no one is left behind.

Learn more about multilingualism at the UN:

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Kavita Sukanandan
Public Information Officer, Communications and Knowledge Management Section