How many languages do you speak? I grew up speaking English, then I studied German as my second language because of my family’s roots there. When I joined the US Foreign Service, I had more German training and served in Stuttgart and Frankfurt. I learned Russian before my posting to St. Petersburg and have kept up with it to speak with my in-laws.
I had some French when I joined UNOG. Between language teachers here and Duolingo, I’ve made great strides and can even occasionally manageto — intentionally — be funny in French. Whenmy eldest moved to Amsterdam, I started Dutch with Duolingo, and my husband and I also want
to study Italian.
I’m hardly alone in my passion for learning and communicating in new languages. Here at the United Nations, multilingualism is a core value of our Organization, as recognized by the General Assembly, and it’s intrinsic to every area of our work. Cultivating a multilingual workforce is one of the highest priorities for the Secretary-General, as well as for the Director-General of UNOG, Ms. Tatiana Valovaya.
Multilingualism has always been at the heart of UN Geneva
I’m proud to say that we are one of the few UN duty stations that is officially bilingual in both French and English. Our public website, intranet, and internal communications are always made available in both languages. And, at the day-to-day level, we are incredibly fluid in how we work — we might write an email in English, jump on a call in French, then send a chat message in another language, all within the span of five minutes.
In Geneva, our staff represent over 100 nationalities and 69 mother languages. French and English serve as the common threads that connect us: together, the two languages createan inclusive and welcoming experience forthose who come to the Palais des Nationsfor meetings and events.
The Division of Conference Management is the largest at UN Geneva, with 577 positions, as well as freelance and contractual professionals who work with us. As Director, I regularly meet with Member States and substantive secretariats, who applaud the work of our talented interpretation and language staff and the crucial role they play in the multilateral process.
During the pandemic our translators, revisers, editors and language desktop publisher readily shifted to fully remote working. Our interpreters worked closely with colleagues in the Division of Administration to provide interpretation for remote participation. In 2021, we translated 70.2 million words and 5,245 original documents. We provided interpretation services to 2,177 meetings — more than any other duty station — and dispatched over 23,000 interpretation assignments, including 36 missions served with UN Special Rapporteurs in the field. I remain deeply impressed at the professionalism, dedication, and commitment of our team.
Promoting multilingualism through knowledge and culture
Our goal is to provide UN staff who wish tolearn another language with the highest calibre of training possible. The UNOG Centre for Learning and Multilingualism (CLM) runs the largest language training program in all six official languages within the UN system. More than 3,600 staff members, diplomats, consultants and interns participate in our trainings every year.
The UN Geneva Library and Archives is alsoa major source of knowledge and exchange when it comes to promoting multilingualism. It boasts a print collection of over 1.5 million physical volumes and over 4 million UN documents in 132 languages. For researchers,it has also curated a bilingual research guideon multilingualism at the UN.
My colleague Francesco Pisano, the Director of the Library, is a strong proponent of celebrating multilingualism through art. Every year, often in partnership with the UNOG Library, as well as Member States of the UN, we organize cultural events that honor the unique traditions surrounding different languages. Whether it’s a tango performance for Spanish Language Week or celebrating the first World Kiswahili Language Day through film and food, we’re very pleased that, regardless of the language you speak, events like these can transcend barriers and bring you closer to another culture.
People are our best asset for promoting multilingualism
Under the direction of the Director-General, I serve as the Chair of the Multilingualism Action Team – a diverse group of 19 passionate volunteers who represent every division across UN Geneva. We meet regularly to discuss opportunities for improving multilingualism at our Organization, to propose concrete solutions and activities, and to report back to the Director-General with our recommendations on creating a more inclusive linguistic environment.
We recently launched a major deliverable: a Multilingualism Toolkit for staff that contains a wealth of resources on how to work in multiple languages at the UN. To draw attention to this launch, we set up a photo booth in a high-traffic area at the Palais des Nations and invited all passersby to pose for photos while holding cards with the languages they speak. Hundreds of people stopped by the booth over a few days,and we were thrilled by the number of languages that were represented.
The Director-General has also launched the Multilingualism Champions initiative. In July, many senior officials representing UN agencies and international organizations in Geneva joined us for an in-person workshop at the Library, where we shared best practices and began sketching out ideas for increasing awarenessand support for multilingualism within our respective organizations.
Opportunities for growth
I know first-hand the frustrations and the exhaustion that can come with learning a new language. They say repetition is the mother of learning, which is especially true for languages, but it can be hard to make forays into shaky linguistic territory, especially on the job. That’s why I strongly encourage managers at UN Geneva to show support for multilingualism. Concretely, this means encouraging communication in both French and English; attending language trainings themselves, if applicable; and most important of all, providing their team members with the support that they need in order to strengthen their language skills, which are so valuable for developing their careers at the UN.
My goal is for everyone at UNOG to understand why multilingualism is so important, and why it benefits us at every level — personally, professionally, as an Organization of international civil servants — to be multilingual, as well as to explore what they can do to become multilingual. Of course, we still have some way to go, so I’m excited to continue working with our wonderful Multilingualism Action Team, our Multilingualism Champions of Geneva, the Director-General, and of course our Member States, to bring us closer to this reality.