Former FCO Director of Foreign Language Training John Moore takes a light-hearted approach to British diplomats and their foreign language skills throughout the ages

HORATIO WALPOLE, BROTHER of British statesman Sir Robert, was not, by today’s standards, an ideal Ambassador. Described in such terms as “blunt, awkward and slovenly; an ambassador without dignity,” even he admitted that he was “by nature choleric and impestuous,” had never learned to dance and “did not pique himself on making a bow.” The success of his missions in Paris between 1716 and 1740 rested on his intimacy with the elderly Cardinal Fleury, and it was Fleury who made the celebrated comment that “il (Walpole) est diablement .loquent avec son mauvais fran.ois,” roughly translated as “Walpole is devilishly eloquent with his bad French.” This remark pinpoints the two distinct but related components of language proficiency: formal accuracy and practical effectiveness. The uneasy marriage between the two continues to wear out the keyboards of language professionals today. Linguistic vs pragmatic competence. Correct grammar vs appropriate interaction.

British diplomats pride themselves on competence in both dimensions, but over the years the advice they have given has tended to lean towards one side or the other. James Howell, charged with diplomatic missions to Spain, Sardinia and Denmark, and author of Instructions for Forreine Travell (1642), set up tent in the pragmatic camp. Learners “must not be bashfull or meale mouth’d in speaking any thing, whatsoever it is, let it come forth confidently whither true or false Sinsaxis; for a bold vivacious spirit hath a very great advantage in attaining the French, or indeed any other Language.” An interpreter, he noted, “may so overpunctual in Words that he may mar the Matter.” Those of “of riper yeares” were advised to avoid affectation: “let it bee sufficient …. to speake French intelligibly, roundly, and congruoufly.”

George Puttenham, in The Arte of English Poesie (1589), however, advised ambassadors to avoid using foreign languages they did not command perfectly, citing the example of a courtier who had told a French diplomat that his wife “chevauche bien.”

The Earl of Chesterfield, Ambassador to The Hague in 1728, reminded his son that fluency may be worthless without accuracy: “You will soon find how particularly attentive they (the French) are to the correctness and elegancy of their language, and to the graces of their enunciation ; they would even call the understanding of a man in question, who should neglect or not know the infinite advantages arising from them… The tongue that would persuade there must not content itself with mere articulation.”

If the early diplomats did not always excel by their accuracy, when it came to devilry, most could hold their own. One who certainly could, and was also unrivaled in linguistic proficiency, was Sir Richard Burton, who finished his career in the, for him, modest roles of consul in Fernando (Equatorial Guinea), Santos, Damascus and Trieste. For a man who had reportedly mastered 29 languages plus a few dialects, entered Mecca in 1853 disguised as an Afghan, survived virtually every calamity that could befall someone in Africa and founded a society for the translation of erotic literature, he described his language learning method (“purely my own invention”) in surprisingly uncavalier terms: “I got a simple grammar and vocabulary, marked out the forms and words which I knew were absolutely necessary, and learnt them by heart… then worked up the grammar minutiae.”

Howell and Burton were in agreement that the process was, in the words of the latter, “a rugged and tortuous path.” On the pains of learning French, Howell declared “the French Tongue… will put one often into fits of despaire and passion… but the Learner must not bee daunted [choleric] awhit at that, … she must not shake you off so, but after a little intermission hee must come on more strongly, and with a pertinacity of resolution set upon her again and againe, and woe her as one would do a coy Mistres, with a kind of importunity, untill he overmaster her [and she will be very plyable at last].”

Burton’s metaphor was more robust, if only marginally more politically correct: after pursuing his studies by reading a translation of one of the Gospels, “the neck of the language,” he wrote, “was now broken, and progress was rapid.” He agreed with Howell in advising learners not to be bashful. “Don’t be English—that is, shy or self-conscious— if you know five words, air them wherever you can; next day you will know ten, and so on till you can speak. Don’t be like the Irishman who would not go into the water until he could swim.”

Horatio Walpole was certainly neither shy nor self-conscious. Lord Newcastle, amongst others, complimented him on his ability to “sooth and frighten and do both.”

During Brexit negotiations over the next two years, British diplomats will need to muster all the reserves of devilry they can. But whether a strategy of both soothing and frightening will reap rewards, is open to question.




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