THE POWER OF LANGUAGE IN INTERNATIONAL ENGAGEMENT AND THE ROLE OF LANGUAGE AT THE UNITED NATIONS – TSHEGOFATSO M. P. RAMACHELA

Image: Matthew TenBruggencate (Unsplash)

Introduction

The African continent is home to 1.3 billion people in 54 countries, speaking over 2000 languages. Yet these languages and dialects are rarely used by African leaders to convey their agendas in international forums. By contrast, non-African leaders and representatives from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America often speak a language which is familiar to them when engaging in international dialogue, and rely on translators to convey their message. It is the intention of this article to highlight the inherent power dynamic in the use of language as a means of cultural expression, identity and power projection. This article will demonstrate the manner in which the use of language at the United Nations (UN) privileges only a hand full of nations and entrenches power asymmetry amongst its member states. Furthermore, this article will identify the underlying reasons for the sole use of English by African leaders as the language of communication in international engagements. Finally, it is the intention of this article to demonstrate the potential, language possesses in creating jobs for young Africans in the international system.

Language assumes several roles within the social world and its interpretations differ amongst various social actors. Social identities are created and expressed through language. Thus, language is both an instrument of representation as well as socialisation. Often, the role that language plays in the constitution of cultural subjectivities is unacknowledged. Language is not only a vehicle of culture and an expression of identity, but also an instrument which enables the projection of power. It is significantly responsible for shaping society and social relationships. Language itself is very emotive and may be politically loaded. The supranational body that is the UN has six official languages these include English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Spanish and Russian. This reflects a major issue with the structure of the UN. An institution revered for its international multilateralism and its dedication to diplomacy, yet it excludes a bulk of its member states in its recognition of merely six languages. This is not to say that only the officially recognised languages may be used at the UN, however it is necessary to enquire and ask why only six languages were adopted by the UN. As an alternative, why did the UN not adopt a system in which the most spoken language from each member state or region is officially recognised by the organisation? In the process, creating a space which is more inclusive and pluralistic. The widespread usage of the six languages mentioned above, prompted the UN recognition of these languages. Yet there are many other languages which are widely used, perhaps not as widely as the official six UN languages, but used nonetheless. For an international organisation as large as the UN with its 154 member states, six official languages are nowhere near an adequate system of representation. The privileged languages of the UN are but one aspect of its structure which disadvantages many if not all the countries of the Global South. The composition of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the veto powers of its five permanent members constitute major factors which disadvantage the bulk of UN member states. These officially designated languages correspond largely with the dominant languages of the five powerful veto wielding states in the UNSC.

From the late nineteenth century to the third quarter of the twentieth century, much of Africa was under British and French colonial rule. Consequently, both English and French are spoken in the bulk of African countries. However, this is not to imply that the majority of Africans speak nor understand these two Indo-European languages, as roughly only 18 percent of Africans speak English and/or French. Perhaps one of the most enduring features of Eurocentric hegemony in Africa today, is the Western education system and the European structures which exist in African universities. Today, the main language of instruction used in most educational systems in Africa is English, followed by French. Yet this works to the disadvantage to the majority of Africans who do not speak these languages. The implications of this, engender inequalities amongst Africans and entrench inequitable access to services and other amenities including the vital job market. As a consequence of this educational system and the UN recognition of only six languages, African leaders have adopted a conformist approach at the UN meetings. In order to accommodate their non-African counterparts, African heads of state and representatives use English and/or French as the language of communication, as opposed to their own mother tongue. 

In a highly globalised world, it is advantageous to adopt the use of an internationally recognised language when engaging at the international level. It is both convenient and facilitatory to communicate in English as it is a widely spoken language and thus an intermediary or third party is not always necessary to translate. However, this places a number of international actors at a severe disadvantage as English may not be their first language nor one that they are comfortable using. Were African leaders and representatives to begin addressing international forums in their own languages as opposed to solely in the English or French language, a greater space for socio-cultural exchange will take form. This shift would facilitate a number of job opportunities in the international system for young multilingual individuals. This would not only open up the diplomatic sphere to young and aspiring international workers, but it would also prompt individuals to learn more languages. Furthermore, the facilitation of translator positions provides young scholars, particularly those of international relations, with the opportunity to travel and familiarise themselves with the diplomatic environment. In the last quarter of 2020, South Africa’s official unemployment rate stood at 32.5 percent, that equates to approximately 7.2 million unemployed persons. The youth, those with tertiary level education and those without, remain the most vulnerable in the South African labour market, as the unemployment rate among this group is more than 50 percent. The high rate of youth unemployment in South Africa (SA) is one of the most pressing socio-economic issues, this coupled with issues of corruption continues to affect the relationship between the government and the public. One of the solutions to the problem of unemployment in SA, is to create job opportunities for the youth in the international system. 

Conclusion

The utility of the UN as a forum for international negotiations, multilateralism, an instrument of peace, development and security as well as its role in promoting and protecting human rights cannot be ignored. However, its anachronistic structure and the composition of the Security Council continues to entrench the long-standing power asymmetry among its members. Its structure does not represent the current global architecture, rather it represents the interests of the hegemonic forces of days past, who continue to dominate the present international system. This coupled with the often-unacknowledged issue of its privileged languages, reflects the inherent asymmetry between its member states and poor representation. In order to address the issue of language and inequality at a global level, African leaders must first identity and address the issues at a national level. There is a pressing need to further decolonise education systems across the African continent, both in terms of their structure and curriculum. Education is the most fundamental basis for individual and collective development, but it is also a basic human right of every individual, to be provided with a good quality education. Access to education in Africa is a persisting issue, and alongside barriers such as poverty, instability and inequality, language presents another unnoticed barrier. Language is powerful and the ability to use language symbolically and as a tool of communication is a dimension of power. This should be part and parcel of the core concerns of the restructuring and transformation agenda of the UN on the quest for equitable representation. 

Tshegofatso Ramachela is a certified paralegal and has an undergraduate degree in International Studies, Political Sciences and History from the University of Pretoria. She is a humanitarian, an intersectional postcolonial feminist and an aspiring international development and peace worker, who hopes to one day be a Doctoral student. Tshegofatso is a permanent member of The Art of Politics writing staff.

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