When it comes to building ‘Global Britain,’ James Landale, diplomatic correspondent, BBC News reports that the UK has a long way to go…
For British diplomats, the English language is a blessing and a curse. To the chagrin of the French, English is considered by many the lingua franca of modern diplomacy: the demarche has been replaced by the tweet; the entente by the MOU. It is the common language of international summits and debating chambers, the language that ambassadors use to communicate with those who do not speak their own. And English, of course, is the vernacular that will get you a beer in any bar anywhere in the world. So being a master of the dominant global language provides a British envoy with a head start in any negotiation.
Yet British diplomats will tell you that they cannot – and should not – rely on their English to do their jobs. They simply have to learn the language of their posting. Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Speaking a foreign language helps a diplomat get the access he or she needs, it helps put their interlocutors at ease, it allows them to speak directly to people across the country through social media. It means a diplomat can read an official text quickly without having to wait for a translation. And it gives an envoy a chance to really understand what someone is thinking by appreciating the nuance of the words they use. There are some things that auto-translate can never replace.
One British ambassador who served in an extremely closed and authoritarian country described once how he used his expertise in a complex language to understand his posting better. He was not allowed much access to ordinary people. So, he deliberately stood in long queues with other shoppers. And because he was a tall white man, everyone around him presumed he did not speak their language. But he did and he eavesdropped their conversations and used the intelligence he picked up to illustrate and inform his telegrams home.
There was a time when the British were rather good at languages. We once even had a Minister for Languages. In the republic that governed England after the execution of Charles I, John Milton served as Secretary for Foreign Tongues to the Commonwealth Council of State.
In truth, this mostly involved the great poet translating official communications with foreign governments into Latin and their replies back into English. But what a title! Think too of the young District Collectors governing huge swathes of empire with nothing but a bucket load of confidence and familiarity with the local dialect. Think of the young Foreign Office diplomats after World War I being taught Arabic at the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies in Lebanon, dubbed later the British ‘school for spies.’ And think too of the British Foreign Secretary – Jeremy Hunt – who can speak fluent Japanese and a smattering of Chinese, in stark contrast to the broken franglais of his predecessor.
And yet in recent years the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has struggled to ensure that enough of its diplomats do speak foreign languages.
There are not enough Arabic speakers, with the FCO admitting that only 30 per cent of relevant officers speak the language to the target-level of attainment. Much of this is blamed on King Charles Street insisting on rotating diplomats into new postings so that linguistic skills are often wasted. There is also a dearth of Russian speakers, something that was made even worse when Moscow expelled a number of British diplomats in the wake of the Skripal affair, two thirds of whom were Russian speakers. In 2017, British officials faced some ridicule for their translation of the UK government’s plans for Brexit, known as the Chequers proposals. Instead of using the EU translation service, the British relied on their own linguists and their at times archaic German was much mocked. In the recent BBC documentary, Inside the Foreign Office, one of the most striking scenes was watching an official gently suggest that the then Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, should not set out his policy plans in French. “But they love it when I talk French,” he replies. The official’s poker face is a model of diplomacy.
Part of this linguistic weakness is down to confidence. The British can at times seem nervous about speaking a foreign language in public. Winston Churchill famously warned the people of France during a speech: “Prenez garde! Je vais parler francais!”A British diplomat may lose the incentive to learn a different language if everyone speaks his or her own. When they ask a question in a foreign language, they will often be answered in English, with a rather pitying tilt of the head as if to acknowledge the valiant attempt while regretting the poor execution. They cannot use their language to communicate in private, unless of course they are a Prime Minister like David Lloyd-George who occasionally reported back to London in Welsh during the Versailles negotiations to frustrate the spies listening in. And the British diplomat will struggle to use his native language to express the constructive ambiguity needed in some negotiations if his interlocutors are too familiar with his vocab and vernacular.
Recent Foreign Secretaries have recognised this linguistic problem and attempted to do something about it. In 2013, Lord Hague revived the FCO’s in-house language school after it had been cut by the previous Labour government. Jeremy Hunt promised last year to increase the number of languages taught at the school from 50 to 70 including Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Shona and Gujarati. He also promised to double the number of British diplomats speaking a foreign language from 500 to 1,000 over the next ten years. The FCO told MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee that 55 per cent of the roles where knowledge of a relevant language is deemed necessary are filled by diplomats speaking that language to the requisite standard, up from 31 per cent in 2015.
There is, however, still a long way to go. British diplomats like to talk about ‘Global Britain,’ the government’s
ill-defined approach to the UK’s place in the world after Brexit. But this mixture of diplomacy, security and soft power projection can surely not be conducted solely in English.