By Jean-Benoît Nadeau & Julie Barlow
The April 2nd edition of The Economist published an article on the languages of diplomacy titled “Towards a fairer distribution.”
While it is a very interesting article, we disagree with their classification of French as “anachronistic,” French being one of UN’s two working languages.
The Economist states that French, with 74 million speakers, has less native speakers than Hindi or Portuguese. If things were only that simple! To start with, French is an official language in 33 countries. This is less than English (at 63), but still considerably more than the runner-ups: Spanish (21), Arabic (20) and Portuguese (7).
In addition, some 116 million kids are entirely educated in French in 55 different countries. While these students are not included in the native French speakers’ statistics, they are French speakers nonetheless.
No other major language – let it be Spanish, Russian or Mandarin – is in the same league as French, as far as international languages go. French is the only other language – along with English – whose native speakers are largely surpassed by second-language speakers, with the possible addition of Arabic.
In short, the choice of French as a UN working language, along with English, is not merely a “product of history.” It reflects French’s status as an international language.
As for the article suggesting that “Spanish is the only logical replacement,” we understand the status of the Spanish language very well, having written about it in our book The Story of Spanish. And although there is no debating that many more people speak Spanish than French as a mother tongue, a language’s number of speakers is not the only factor that determines its position as an international language.
For instance, four to five times more people learn French as a second language than Spanish. And when it comes to Spanish, 60% of learners are concentrated in three countries (Brazil, the United States and France). French learners are spread more widely across the planet.
The UN is of course perfectly justified in considering introducing Spanish or Arabic as the Secretariat General’s working languages. But any assessment should consider the full picture of each language as an international language.
Of course, in the end, the UN would be the wiser to choose more working languages than less – if only to reflect the linguistic reality of the world as it is.
More information about the the Spanish language can be found in our new book, The Story of Spanish, (to be released in May 2013, St. Martin’s Press).