Multiplicity of languages in international relations


When several languages are in use in international relations (and typically in an international organization), their structural differences often give rise to difficulties in translation. This is particularly important in the case of the texts of treaties and resolutions. Granting official status to several languages causes many difficulties and seriously threatens efficiency. There are considerable delays in the translation of some documents into the less-demanded languages. Use of an official language by non-mother-tongue speakers place them at a disadvantage unless they constitute the majority. The nations whose languages are the official languages are placed at a considerable advantage. The use of several languages is time-consuming and extremely costly in interpretation and translation.


The number of languages used in international relations is increasing, particularly in the largest international organizations. Approximately one-third of international organizations have one official language. Two-thirds have more than one. A 1960 survey indicated that out of 1,206 international organizations, 381 have a single official language, 346 have 2, 248 have 3, 147 have 4, 58 have 5, 15 have 6, and 11 have 7 or more. In a study carried out by the Union of International Associations, a survey of 315 international congresses showed that 18 written and 19 spoken languages had been used: in 298, English was used; in 266—French; in German—157; Spanish—61; Russian—6; Italian—13; Portuguese—9; Swedish—8; Esperanto and Dutch—6, etc. In 22.7% of the cases, consecutive interpretation was used; for 71.4% there was simultaneous interpretation, and both systems were used in the remaining cases. For two languages two interpreters are required so that they can alternate, with each interpreting into his dominant language. Three conference languages require six interpreters; four languages, twelve; five languages 20; and so on.

The following conference languages statistics are interesting as applied to intergovernmental organizations: the United Nations uses six, including Arabic, in the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council. The European Communities presently use seven, with expectation of at least two more. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance uses ten languages. Using the formula: x = n(n - 1), where "x" is the number of interpreters required and "n" the number of languages to be used, the number of interpreters required for a conference if all languages are used is: at the UN, 30; at the EEC/EU, 42 (in the future, 56 to 72); and at CMEA, at present, 90. Also, staffing of interpreters is higher than a single conference requirement, so that although for a UN conference 30 interpreters are required, in practice there are more than double that number of staff. Document translation for all intergovernmental organizations also requires a fully staffed department for each language. UN translators may number 300 to 400 at any one time.

UN costs for all aspects of the translation and interpretation burden, for document production and distribution, cannot be measured accurately but the total cost for the entire UN family exceeds US$ 100 million annually. If the UN's six languages are compared to the EEC's seven and to CMEA's ten languages, the annual cost, for these three organizations alone, is probably US$ 500 million. The annual cost of the multiplicity of languages to all intergovernmental organizations may be in the vicinity of US$ 3 billion. The annual cost of document translation world-wide may reach US$ 20 billion, according to some sources. Japan alone, it is estimated, spends the equivalent of $ 2 billion. The cost of the multiplicity of languages is scarcely imaginable for everyone together: IGOs, INGOs, governments, commercial and industrial firms; and even individuals who must learn, and schools and universities that must teach, second, third and fourth or more languages to be used commonly. This world-wide cost is greater than the national budgets of most of the nations in the world and indicates how the multiplicity of languages is causing the greatest resource of all, human energy, to be depleted.

The EU as an organisation operates in 21 official languages. The translation and interpretation costs of the work of the European Parliament covers 33% of its budget. Before the enlargement 11 languages equaled a total of 110 possible language combinations (11 languages to translate each into the 10 other languages); with 21 languages, as it is now, 420 combinations are possible.

In 1985 the USA Department of Education produced a checklist of 169 languages considered to be critical in the sense that knowledge of them would promote important scientific research or security interests of a national or economic nature.

Problem Type:
C: Cross-sectoral problems
Date of last update
04.10.2020 – 22:48 CEST