Why Portuguese is not an official language of the United Nations?

(Originally posted on January 28th 2009 at http://stoa.usp.br/tom/weblog/41554.html)

Today, after Virginia Cram-Martos announced that the United Nations Office in Geneva is looking for a student to work there, I asked to the people of the Open Educational Resources mailing listabout Portuguese not being considered as an official language of the United Nations. Nowadays, the six official languages of the United Nations are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

Here is my email:


2009/1/27 Virginia Cram-Martos <Virginia.Cram-Martos AT unece.org>:

> They are ideally looking for someone who speaks English plus one of the
> following: Arabic, Chinese, Russian or Spanish. French is also useful for
> daily life here (Geneva is a French-speaking city/region). The other
> languages are needed because they would like the intern to help them
> increase the materials in their database in these languages (the current
> selection of materials in English and French being much more complete).

I’m going to submit my CV to the email specified in the attached
document, but I want to ask you all another thing which called my
attention (it’s not the first time). Why Portuguese is not an official
language of United Nations? According to this list

Portuguese is the 6th most spoken language in the World. This list says there are around 178 million speakers, but I think there are even more, since Brazilian population is around 190 million. Sure I’m not only considering the number of speakers, but also Brasil importance on the international scenario.

I’m asking here because maybe someone knows the answer or for whom should I ask this (I’m going to send an email later to someone at UN and I’ll look for an email in their website). If I’m wrong, sorry.

Wondering to myself. How much bureaucratic is UN for such kind of change (or improvement)? How much space this organization has for Portuguese speakers? (I must say in Brazil people don’t speak Spanish, besides similarities in both languages, and I read a lot of people abroad thinking we do. Also. English is spoken more often by middle class to rich people, a minority here.)

It seems UN has great influence by economic powers in their decisions, but even so, Brazil is an emerging country and, in my humble opinion, UN should consider an improvement in their communication with Portuguese speakers <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portuguese_language>.

I hope my email didn’t sound as some kind of nationalism or
patriotism. It’s really a curiosity and an important issue, in my
opinio (maybe for other Portuguese speakers, as well).



“Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all
other countries because you were born in it.”

~ George Bernard Shaw

“Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.”

~ Bertrand Russell

Virginia’s answer (note that this is a very unofficial note about the official UN working languages):

Official UN working languages

Dear OER colleagues,

In response to the discussion about languages that my first message about an Intern has generated,  I would like to offer this short and very unofficial note about the official UN working languages which are those used by our training resource centre here in Geneva. These are : Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. The working languages were decided by the General Assembly where all countries take part. The General Assembly could also add or subtract languages in the future. For budgetary and humanitarian reasons, I think it is unlikely that any more will be added.

– Budgetary reasons because it is very expensive to publish, translate and interpret into multiple languages, keeping in mind that the additional cost for each new language is exponential because for each language you add, you must translate into it (and from it ) for all of the other languages.

– Humanitarian reasons because the UN has a very restricted budget (much smaller than that of New York City) and the money that it would need to spend in order to use more languages is money that it (and its member States) would not be able to spend on development and humanitarian work.

The designation of official working languages is a practical issue to facilitate the work of the UN. I am sure that the General Assembly and the UN secretariat do not intend the designation of official working languages as anything more than a practical measure to facilitate the UN’s work. It is not in any way meant to reflect on the importance, or the beauty, of any of the hundreds of languages (widely spoken or spoken by only a few) that are not official working languages.  The UN believes strongly in multi-lingualism, one evididence of this being, if I am not mistaken, UNESCO’s mandate is to promote and preserve native languages and multilingualism in the world.

I hope that the above is useful and provides a slightly better understanding of the issue.

Virginia Cram-Martos

Since my email was off-topic, some people seemed to dislike it and I’ve been informed that many members of this mailing list have very difficult and expensive connectivity, I decided to publish on my blog our small discussion.

I’ve searched through Internet about this issue (Wikia/Google) and found some interesting additional information:

Remaining questions

Beyond what I said, I’ve read some (similar) justifications and some additional challenges to make Portuguese an official language.

I still have some questions and, thinking about what have been said, I’m not sure if it would be important to make Portuguese an official language:

1. Would be useful to have United Nations documents read by Portuguese speakers? Maybe a person who doesn’t speak one of the official languages could ask about UN usefulness at all (or even one speaker could ask as well?).

2. If “the designation of official working languages is a practical issue to facilitate the work of the UN”, is it really necessary to have all these six languages?

3. Virginia talked about the budgetary reasons. I’ll search for information about this later, if it exists publicly — if not, it should, I think. Maybe she is right, but it would be interesting to compare how much money is spent on army around the world  with the money delivered to UN.

I’m going to think and research about this issue later. If you know or have something to add, please, feel free to comment. :-)


4 Comentários on “Why Portuguese is not an official language of the United Nations?”

  1. gabriel disse:

    a rádio, pelo menos, existe há algum tempo: http://www.unmultimedia.org/radio/portuguese/

    se não me engano, ela é tocada por apenas uma funcionária brasileira

  2. Tom disse:

    (Commented originally on January 28th 2009)

    Que legal, Gabriel!!! Obrigado por informar!

  3. boupinel disse:

    Vamos manter o português como segredo só nosso….. do tipo “O Tejo é mais belo que o rio que corre pela minha aldeia, Mas o Tejo não mais belo que o rio que corre pela minha aldeia, Porque o tejo não é o rio que corre pela minha aldeia…”

    Para as burocracias internacionais, a gente usa inglês, francês, ou castelhano. Combinado?

    “Porque pertence a menos gente, É mais livre e maior o rio da minha aldeia.”

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