Symposia at the United Nations

Address: Church Center, 777 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017.
Email:tonkin (at)

The series of symposia at the UEA office at the United Nations in New York is organized by the study Group on Language and the United Nations, in co-operation with the University of Hartford, the Centre for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems and ESF. The study Group on Language and the United Nations is a group of scholars and practitioners interested in:

  • how the language policies of the United Nations work in practice,
  • how people at the UN use language and make choices among languages, and
  • how the UN communicates linguistically with people outside the organisation itself.


Language, the Sustainable Development Goals, and Vulnerable Populations

Date & Place: May 11 & 12, New York



Language and the Sustainable Development Goals

Date & Place: April 21-22th, 2016, New York



Language and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was the topic of a symposium held at the Church Center for the United Nations, in New York, on April 21 and 22, 2016. Over one hundred academics, diplomats, NGO representatives and UN officials attended the gathering, which examined the linguistic implications of the SDGs, set by the United Nations General Assembly as the basis for the UN’s development agenda for the period 2015-2030.

The keynote address was given by Suzanne Romaine, former Merton Professor of the English Language at the University of Oxford.  Michael Ten-Pow, Special Adviser to the UN Coordinator for Multilingualism, described his work in the promotion and maintenance of multilingualism within the United Nations itself. 

The event was held to highlight the importance of language as a means for the communication of the SDGs to all of the world’s peoples, and as an element in the successful realization of the goals themselves. Referring to the fourth SDG, on quality education, Timothy Reagan, of the University of Maine, pointed out that “in spite of the centrality of linguistic issues for this goal, and others, it is interesting to note that language is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the goals themselves, nor in the articulation of the targets to be met in meeting these goals.”  “Despite their lofty goals,” added Professor Romaine of Oxford University, the SDGs “still fail to acknowledge the central role of language in the global debate on poverty, sustainability, and equity.” 

The symposium discussed language not only as an element in individual goals themselves, but also as the means of communicating the goals and engaging in dialogue with a multilingual world.  Stress was laid on the importance of two-way communication in which everyone could participate fully. 

Speakers included: Katalin Buzasi, of the University of Amsterdam; Terrence G. Wiley (Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC); Kurt Müller (National Defense University, Washington, DC); Lisa McEntee-Atalianis (Birkbeck, University of London, UK); Theo Du Plessis (University of the Free State, South Africa); Carol Benson (Teachers College, Columbia University), Dragana Radosavljevic (University of Greenwich, UK); Francis M. Hult (Lund University, Sweden); Alison Phipps (University of Glasgow, UK); and María Barros and Anna García Álvarez, of the UN’s Spanish Translation Service. Presentations were given by NGO representatives from World Education, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, RTI International, SIL International, the Internationals Network for Public Schools, Linguapax International, and UN Academic Impact. 

“Education is key to the success of post-colonial development efforts to eradicate economic and social inequalities,” declared Rosemary Salomone, professor of law at St. John’s University.  “And the other SDGs are equally important linguistically,” added Humphrey Tonkin, of the University of Hartford, chair of the symposium; “How can you have equality before the law, or livable cities, or even a worldwide concerted effort to eradicate disease or deliver clean water, if you do not have people speaking and working together, through languages that they all understand?” 

It was the general consensus of the gathering that more attention needs to be paid to language in the formulation and execution of the SDGs. While development experts may be fluent in English, many of the people they seek to serve know none of the major world languages. 

The symposium, convened by the Study Group on Language and the United Nations, a loosely-organized group of academics and practitioners, was sponsored by the Universal Esperanto Association, an organization in cooperative relations with the UN’s Economic and Social Council and its Department of Public Information, and by the Center for Applied Linguistics, along with the Center for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems and its journal Language Problems and Language Planning.  The symposium was funded by a grant from the Esperantic Studies Foundation.


Language and Exclusion

Date & Place: May 7, 2015, New York


A group of experts from a dozen countries attended the May 7, 2015, Symposium on Language and Exclusion organized by the Universal Esperanto Association and the Study Group on Language and the United Nations. The symposium took place at the Church Center, 777 United Nations Plaza, New York.  Papers presented at the symposium covered a wide range of fields, all of them with international implications; particular attention was devoted to exclusionary practices in international organizations, with a special emphasis on peacekeeping.

Keynote speaker was Fernand de Varennes, of the University of Pretoria and the University of Hong Kong, well known in UN circles as an expert on human rights law.  “The UN,” declared Professor de Varennes, “has been noticeably timid in addressing the human rights dimensions of language,” an omission all the more remarkable given the instrumentalisation of language claims “in many of the world’s conflicts involving minorities.” He called for greater attention to language both within the United Nations community and in its interaction with the larger world.

Lisa McEntee-Atalianis, of the University of London, offered an extensive analysis of language policy and planning within the United Nations, and Mekki Elbadri, of the United Nations Arabic Translation Service, described UN links with higher educational institutions in the field of translation and interpretation. In two papers, Izadora Xavier (Université Paris 8, France) and José Manuel Ferreiro (Lancaster University, UK) examined discourse in UN peacekeeping missions, while Jenny L. Meier (U.S.Army) and Kurt Müller (National Defense University, USA) offered papers analysing the use of second languages in U.S. peacekeeping and stabilization.

A paper by Rosemary Salomone (St. John’s University, USA) provided updated information on the controversy over the use of English as a language of instruction in higher education in non-English-speaking countries, a topic also addressed by Birna Arnbjörnsdottir, of the University of Iceland, Reykjavík, and Patricia Prinz (Mercy College, USA).  Full program details:



Language and Equality

Date & Place: April 29th, 2014, New York


In cooperation with the Centre for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems and the University of Hartford, the Study Group on Language and the United Nations organized a symposium on language and equality on April 29th, 2014, at the Church Center in New York. The symposium, chaired by former ESF President Dr. Humphrey Tonkin, featured former ESF President and current UEA (Universal Esperanto Association) President Dr. Mark Fettes as keynote speaker and discussion facilitator, as well as an international roster of academic speakers, among whom ESF Advisory Board member Dr. Esther Schor. Full program details:



Language and the United Nations

Date & Place: May 1, 2012, New York


On May 1, 2012, at The Church Center, 777 United Nations Plaza,  New York, the Universal Esperanto Association, in cooperation with the Center for Research and Documentation on the World Language Problems, and the scholarly journal Language Problems and Language Planning, organized a symposium on “Language and the United Nations.”  The symposium was announced as “a review and exploration of how languages affect the work of the United Nations family” and it brought together contributions by a wide range of professionals and academics.

Work on the symposium had begun a year earlier, in 2011.  On December 15, the Association organized a preliminary consultation on the same topic, which was attended by some forty people, among them representatives of NGOs, people associated with the UN, and academics.  At the December 15 event, Professor Humphrey Tonkin, of the University of Hartford, Connecticut, presented a paper entitled “Language and the United Nations,” which provided an overview of language policy at the United Nations and in the various organizations in the United Nations family.  The paper was then discussed by a panel consisting of Françoise Cestac, former UN Assistant Secretary-General, Roberto Borrera, of the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues, and Paolo Valore, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Milan, Italy, and visiting professor at New York University.  After further revision, this paper was circulated among people interested in the topic, many of whom them attended the May 1 symposium.

The May 1 event was attended by close to 100 people, among them ambassadors, United Nations officials, academics, and NGO representatives.

The first session featured opening remarks by Ambassador Filippe Savadogo, Permanent Representative of La Francophonie to the United Nations, and by Alassane Diatta, Chief of the French Translation Service, Department for General Assembly and Conference Management, United Nations, representing his department.  The opening session was followed by a session on language policy at the United Nations.  It featured two papers, the first by Marie-Josée de Saint Robert, Chief of the Languages Service, Division of Conference Management, UN Geneva, on  “Policy Regarding Language Use at the United Nations.” This presentation was followed by a paper by André Corrêa d’Almeida and G. Bahar Otcu (Columbia University) on “The Portuguese Language in the United Nations,” a review of the status of Portuguese at the UN and of arguments for its official status.

Additional sessions addressed “The Language Policy Background and Its Implications,” “Language Teaching and Learning,” and “The NGO Experience.”

The symposium’s rich and abundant programme made for some stimulating discussions among presenters of papers and the other participants, but there was a general feeling that time was insufficient to do full justice to the topic and that it was imperative to continue discussion, particularly on the UN-specific parts of the programme.  It was agreed that mechanisms should be found to allow the discussion to continue, particularly to examine certain major issues, for example the maintenance of multilingualism at the United Nations, the relationship among the Organisation’s working languages, and the ad hoc arrangements arrived at in the face of necessity, particularly in areas and situations away from the UN headquarters and the operation of formal language policy.



Topic: From Zamenhof to Soros

Date: December 15, 2010

This event, on December 15, 2010, at the Church Center, 777 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017 featured a celebration of a new biography of L.L. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, and the launch of a memoir by Tivadar Soros, translated from Esperanto.

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