Chapter 5

Working with One Voice


© UN Photo - Adam Kane

Multilingualism is key to fostering mutual understanding and diversity, preserving cultural heritage, and ensuring that no one is left behind in multilateral processes.

UN Geneva is working to ensure effective and increased participation by all. Through the staff-driven Multilingualism Challenge at UN Geneva, staff were invited to make a commitment – no matter how modest – in support for multilingualism.

Over the course a year, staff participated by making a wide range of personal and professional commitments. Pledges included speaking at least one additional language at work every day and taking language courses. Managers encouraged staff to use either of UN Geneva’s working languages (French or English) in meetings and insisted that all communications be sent out in both working languages.

Furthermore, in August, the Director-General invited all heads of United Nations agencies in Geneva to commit to becoming Multilingualism Champions, undertaking one action each year to promote multilingualism within their organizations.

The goal of this initiative is to maintain linguistic diversity among staff and ensure that the United Nations is truly a multilingual, diverse and inclusive workplace.   

This effort is essential to strengthening the foundations of the multilateral system, the core of UN Geneva.

Pledge your commitment for supporting multilingualism at UN Geneva.


Chap5_Tolstoy’s war and peace lands in Geneva_1

© UN Photo - Daniel Johnson

As the highlight of the Guerre et Paix exhibition at the Fondation Martin Bodmer, six original pages of Tolstoy’s opus were on display to illustrate the timeless realities of war and peace.

“For us, it’s really restoring the lessons of the past, that we have to work for peace, working at all levels,” said UN Geneva Director-General Tatiana Valovaya about the exhibit, “and the best way for ensuring peace is by strengthening multilateralism”.

Leaving the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow for the first time ever, the pages, handwritten between 1864 and 1869, were transported to Geneva under tight security.

The exhibition marked 100 years of cooperation between nations starting from 1919 with the establishment of the League of Nations, the first global intergovernmental organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace.

Watch a video about the exhibition and the manuscripts in Geneva.

Chap5_Tolstoy’s war and peace lands in Geneva_2

© Fondation Martin Bodmer Photo - Naomi Wenger

historical places

Tolstoy in the Bocage


Chap5_Tolstoy in the Bocage

Public Domain - Leo Tolstoy, 1860

The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) was a dedicated advocate of pacificism and non-violent resistance, topics he often incorporated into his writing. Tolstoy’s literary epic War and Peace, written originally in Russian, is widely regarded as one of the finest novels ever written on the conflicting desires of humankind to fight and to live together.

Tolstoy first came to Switzerland in 1857, having just left the army and his fiancée to dedicate his life to literature. During his time in the country, he often met with his cousin, Countess Alexandra Andreyevna Tolstaya, at Villa le Bocage. In Switzerland he absorbed himself in the literature of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an author who had inspired him.

From Geneva he toured much of Switzerland by foot, walking to Montreux and Meiringen. Tolstoy was able to write while in Switzerland, working on the short stories The Cossacks and Lucerne.

Although more than 200 years separate the world of War and Peace from our own, Tolstoy’s preoccupation with the human condition and his support for pacificism remain relevant today. It seems fitting that his time in Geneva was spent at Villa le Bocage, in Ariana Park, which is now home to several UN agencies.




Chap5_Preserving language diversity_1

© UN Photo - Adam Kane

Despite their immense value, languages around the world continue to disappear at an alarming rate. Close to 7,000 languages are spoken globally, but as many as 40% – mostly indigenous – are in danger of disappearing. This is why the United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Showcasing the rich tapestry of languages and cultures around the world, International Mother Language Day was celebrated at UN Geneva on 21 February, with the theme “Indigenous languages matter for development, peacebuilding and reconciliation”.

Participants discovered the basics of the six official UN languages as well as Chichewa, German, Quechua, Sinhala, Swedish and Yoruba. A discussion was also held on how to preserve language diversity in the digital era; topics included a language mapping project, Switzerland’s experiences in preserving Romansch (still spoken by 60,000 people) and the opportunities and challenges that new technologies can bring to the preservation of indigenous languages.

Hear some of the languages spoken by UN staff. 

Chap5_Preserving language diversity_2

© UN Photo -Adam Kane


United Nations Language Days aim to contribute to multilingualism and cultural diversity, while recognizing the importance of the six official languages used throughout the Organization: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. These days are also celebrated to highlight the history, culture and use
of each of these languages.

Chap5_Celebrating Multilingualism_Arabic

© UN Photo - Matija Potocnik

18 December
Beautiful and unique highlights of Arabic art and culture were presented in celebration of Arabic Language Day. The lively event featured excerpts from Arabic literature, live music, a reading by Syrian poet, Nada Menzalji, and a short video presented by artist, eL Seed, who fuses Arabic calligraphy with graffiti to paint bold, colourful messages of hope and peace on buildings around the world.

Find out more

Chap5_Celebrating Multilingualism_Chinese

© UN Photo - Adam Kane

20 April
The interactive exhibition A Living Story of Two Millennia: Past and Present of Chinese Architecture told the story about the historical evolution of Chinese architecture, its artistic principles and the philosophy that inspired it. The weeklong exhibition was held in celebration of Chinese Language Day in April.   

The exhibition covered several central tenets of Chinese culture: harmony between man and nature, openness and inclusiveness, respect for legacy and innovation and dynamic balance. Architecture on the ancient Silk Road, cultural artefacts, modern design and urban landscaping were presented. The exhibit also featured a wonderful tasting of Chinese food, an interactive workshop, and games with Chinese artists and architects.

Find out more

Chap5_Celebrating Multilingualism_English

© UN Photo - Iryna Turtaieva

23 April
Children’s literature can help turn the page on stereotypes, promote a culture of human rights, and encourage children to be agents of change. Discussing how human rights can be reflected through children’s literature was the focus of English: It’s Child’s Play, an event held in celebration of English Language
Day at UN Geneva.    

Find out more

Chap5_Celebrating Multilingualism_French

© UN Photo - Iryna Turtaieva

20 March
Musical comedy, traditional folk rhythms and choral harmonies of Francophone and French songs were part of a concert held in celebration of French Language Day at UN Geneva in March 2019.

Watch a video from the event

Find out more

Chap5_Celebrating Multilingualism_Russian

© UN Photo - Iryna Turtaieva

6 June
Considered to be intimate and sensitive, Russian romance songs are closely linked to lyrical poetry, with more freedom and emotion than often found in traditional songs. Russian culture was celebrated at UN Geneva in 2019 with a performance by Dmitry Nazarov and Olga Vasilieva, two leading Russian entertainers, in celebration of Russian Language Day.

An interactive exhibit at the event enabled participants to learn more about the 33 letters of the Cyrillic alphabet – through 33 colloquial concepts well-known to Russian speakers. The exhibit also shared insightful stories about Russian culture, cuisine, literature, and architecture.

Find out more

Chap5_Celebrating Multilingualism_Spanish

© UN Photo - Adam Kane

10 October
The Spanish storyteller Casilda Regueiro and the musical group Timekey collaborated on the performance of Huellas de Mujer (Footprints of Women) to mark Spanish Language Week. With emotion and theatrics, the group entertained with a collection of traditional stories about women, power, love and sorrow. The audience included adults and children, many of whom sang along to the well-known songs in Spanish.

Highlighting the beauty of Spanish-speaking cultures, the event also included Lengua Nostra, an exhibit of political illustrations by Mexican illustrator Ulises Culebro.

Find out more


Chap5_International day of sign languages_1

© UN Photo - Adam Kane

Sign languages are more than just words. For many people, a sign language is the first or preferred language for connecting and communicating with the world.

Celebrating the International Day of Sign Languages, on 19 September, UN Geneva explored the beauty and diversity of sign languages.

Activities for the day included a pop-up sign language café, a panel discussion and a guided tour of the Palais des Nations, in sign language.

Additionally, a theatre group gave a performance entitled To sign is human, highlighting the diversity
of the deaf community and depicting how sign languages transcend borders.

The events at UN Geneva were a reminder that beyond strengthening accessibility and inclusivity, sign languages provide better opportunities for everyone to participate in multilateral processes.

See some of the activities held at UN Geneva on the International Day of Sign Languages.

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© UN Photo - Adam Kane

Accessibility: working in plain language

Chap5_Accessibility-working in plain language

© UN Photo - Kim Kenny

Speak slowly. Use straightforward words. Keep sentences short. Use fewer acronyms.

Complicated language and obscure jargon can make it hard for people to follow discussions. This is especially true in multilateral meetings and conferences, where people from different backgrounds, cultures and languages, and potentially with learning or physical disabilities, come together to work on complex issues.

Plain language includes writing and speaking that is clear, concise and well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject and intended audience. Materials are considered to be in plain language if the audience can find what they need and understand the content the first time they read or hear it.

Though plain language does not have a recognized standard, it is important to remember that content that is plain to some may not be plain to others.

Techniques for using plain language

  • Create content with a focus on the reader
  • Prefer “you” and other pronouns
  • Use the active voice, not the passive
  • Use short sentences and paragraphs
  • Use common, everyday words
  • Use easy-to-follow design features (lists, headers, tables)

Find out more about plain language at UN Geneva.