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What Is a Working Language?

Marlene de Wilde
Marlene de Wilde

Working language, also known as procedural language, is the language that is used in a company, state, society or any other organization or body as the main means of communication. The establishment of a working language is necessary in organizations that consist of members from different language backgrounds in order to ensure that everyone is proficient in the working language and there are no errors in communication.

Prime examples of the need to establish working languages come from international bodies such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the European Union. Each of these are made up of numerous nationalities, each with their own mother tongues and official languages. The main reason for establishing working languages in these cases is economical as the cost of translating all speeches, papers, decisions and memos into every language would be cost prohibitive, not to mention time-consuming and impractical. However, the choice of which language is accepted is often a controversial one with the native speakers of the languages at an advantage.

English is the primary language of the business world.
English is the primary language of the business world.

English and French are the most common working languages for many international bodies with Spanish and German coming in third and fourth. However, the working language depends on the area and type of organization. For example, the Southern African Development Community lists four: English, French, Afrikaans and Portuguese. The United Nations lists Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Russian as well as English and French. This means that these languages are used at meetings and representatives may speak any one of these languages. If they are not familiar with these languages, then interpretation is provided but only into one of the six working languages. Simultaneous interpretation of the six is provided automatically.

Some Haitian-Americans speak a pidgen language that mixes English and Creole.
Some Haitian-Americans speak a pidgen language that mixes English and Creole.

Another synonym for a working language is 'lingua franca' with a slight difference that a lingua franca may or may not apply to an official language but refers to the systematic use of a third language to make communication possible between speakers who do not share a mother tongue. English is perhaps the most obvious language used in many areas but it may also be a pidgin or creole language standardized by long-term usage. The origin of lingua francas go back to the Middle Ages when a common language was needed to enable communication between trade partners and empire builders. The first used was a mixture of French, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Arabic and was spoken by traders in Mediterranean ports.

Discussion Comments


@stoneMason-- Actually, Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish are also working languages for the UN. Initially, it was just French and English but that has changed. So technically, anyone speaking any one of these should be qualified to work for the UN language-wise. Of course, different agencies and locations may have specific requirements.

I don't know if English is the most common working language but I think it should be so for the European Union. I read an article on this recently and apparently, EU spends 250 million euros on translation services every year. English, German and French are the working languages of the EU, but they have to do translations for 15-20 some languages for the member states. I don't know why they don't just use English for everything.


@ddljohn-- I think you will be fine with English. French and English are the primary working languages for the UN and it is required that everyone know at least one of these. So it will be sufficient to know English. The only exception to this is for local (national) hires in that country. Some vacancies require local hires and those individuals will be required to speak the local language as well as one of the working languages of the UN -- usually English.

As far as I know, English is the most popular working language in the world right now.


I want to work for the UN but I want to work oversees. So will I be fine with just English? Or are there places where there are multiple working languages required? Does anyone here know?

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    • English is the primary language of the business world.
      By: Ackley Road Photos
      English is the primary language of the business world.
    • Some Haitian-Americans speak a pidgen language that mixes English and Creole.
      By: poco_bw
      Some Haitian-Americans speak a pidgen language that mixes English and Creole.