One in 40 UK diplomats fluent in language of country in which they work

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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:37
Hebrew to English
Another bit of irresponsible journalism.... Apr 11, 2012

Before I hear cries of "oh those ignorant Brits, not bothering to learn languages again..." let's not forget that diplomats are routinely rotated and never stay in one country for very long.
As Charles Crawford, the former ambassador to Poland admitted:

"Postings are 3-4 years: more than long enough for a diligent 'speaker' to get very good"

I'm not so sure. Motivation is a key element in language learning, it's hard to muster much motivation when faced with the futility of learning a language for the sake of 3-4 years before being moved on and repeating the same endless cycle. In addition, I'm not sure how much progress can be made in 3-4 years - in language learning, 3-4 years is a drop in the ocean, especially when you factor in the fact that most diplomats, despite being immersed in the target country will still essentially be surrounded by English.

After 3-4 years of normal language learning (expected of our children) they reach, what?, key stage 3/4....which is veryyyy basic language (wo ist das Schwimmbad? Ich habe meine Hausaufgaben gemacht/vergessen), and the children don't have a full time job to juggle too. I think expectations are being unrealistically set here.

I'm all for encouraging the British to learn more language(s), but let's be realistic and reasonable. If your job entails only spending 3ish years in a country, you aren't necessarily going to be THAT invested in becoming fluent.


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Erik Freitag  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 00:37
Member (2006)
Dutch to German
+ ...
My thoughts exactly Apr 11, 2012

Ty, that's what I think exactly. I don't think that the figures are any better for other countries - nor that they need to, or could be. That's what translators and interpreters are for.

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Alison Sparks  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:37
French to English
+ ...
Not sure I agree Apr 11, 2012

with you Ty.

"Postings are 3-4 years: more than long enough for a diligent 'speaker' to get very good". Yes, why not?

Some people are more gifted than others at picking up languages, certainly from a spoken/listening point of view.

A few diplomats I have known find the ability to understand what is being said a very useful attribute even if they don't speak the language well. In some cultures you need to be able to interpret what the interpreter is saying, since they may be being diplomatic themselves!!!

My son came to France aged 30 with no previous knowledge of French, and within 6 months understood 95% of what was being said and after 18 months was speaking pretty fluently. And it took my father only 2 years to speak Cantonese fluently, and my uncle only one year to become fluent in Russian.

As you say it depends on the degree of motivation, and I'd have thought career diplomats must be very motivated to go into that type of work, especially knowing they're likely to get shifted around. Besides, I think it's easier to find the motivation for such studies as an adult, especially if you're surrounded by the language you're learning.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:37
Hebrew to English
Stigma Apr 11, 2012

I see your point, and no doubt that some diplomats are also gifted linguists, but I don't think a skilled diplomat necessarily has to be a skilled linguist. I certainly don't think we should begin to stigmatize diplomats who don't become fluent in 4 years. It surely doesn't mean they are bad diplomats at all.

After all, if being a diplomat was all about language knowledge, then surely they'd recruit linguists, not specialists in international politics, law and economists (and people with far more shrewd negotiating skills - the whole "rates" debacle might attest to the fact that linguists don't always make the best negotiators - debatable).



[Edited at 2012-04-11 13:04 GMT]


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:37
Hebrew to English
Conflicted profession Apr 11, 2012

We should also cut them some slack given that they work for a paranoid and conflicted organisation.

The whole rotation system is designed to prevent Clientitis and "going native" which is completely antipodal to long term language acquisition. They may say they want their diplomats to learn the local language, but they fear assimilation and confused loyalties more.

If we should blame anyone, we should blame the Foreign Office for being stuck in a cold-war mentality, not the nomadic souls being shifted from pillar to post (and still being expected to be fantastically gifted polyglots).

At least Charles Crawford (the diplomat quoted in my initial post) agrees the Telegraph article is pretty dire journalism:
http://charlescrawford.biz/blog/fco-language-skills-decline-and-fall-

[Edited at 2012-04-11 13:33 GMT]


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 16:37
English to Spanish
+ ...
USA Apr 11, 2012

This makes me wonder what the figure is for the USA, maybe not much better, maybe even worse.

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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:37
Hebrew to English
Arguments for multi-lingual diplomats Apr 11, 2012

Charles Crawford today wrote a response to the Telegraph article from yesterday, he argues:

Why do language skills matter to diplomats? Because funny things happen in the language of diplomacy, including at the highest levels. Remember the embarrassment of the late President Kaczynski of Poland during his visit here in 2006, when his too-clever interpreter wrongly interpreted as “feckless” the president’s description of many Poles who had come to work here?"


Seems like human error to me. It also seems to me that linguistic misadventures like this are more likely to occur with a diplomat who has crammed for a year or so to learn a language than to a professional translator/interpreter who has spent a vast portion of their life learning the language. The above case could also just be an indication of a "bad egg", an unfortunate choice of linguist.

Conclusion? Diplomats who speak local languages know more, and get better results. But here’s another warning from recent history: we suffered the indignity of an idiotic row with India in 2009 when the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, used crass, matey New Labour language to address the Indian foreign minister, someone notably older and grander than himself.


http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/9195725/Language-skills-are-being-lost-in-translation.html

This is a case of chronic idiocy. No amount of language learning can necessarily cure that!

Personally, these arguments do little to convince me.


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Melanie Meyer  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:37
Member (2010)
English to German
+ ...
US Diplomats Apr 11, 2012

Henry Hinds wrote:

This makes me wonder what the figure is for the USA, maybe not much better, maybe even worse.


I don't know what the exact statistics are for US diplomats. But having been a foreign service spouse for several assignments, I know that for certain positions (like for example consular or political officers), diplomats undergo months of full-time language training prior to their overseas assignments to get to a certain level of proficiency in the foreign language.

That's often not the case though for positions in other fields like IT, Security and it also depends on the hierarchy of the position.

On the other hand, I did meet plenty of foreign service families, both employees and family members, who could barely say hello in the language of their host country three or four years into their assignments. I've always found that a pity for them to miss such a tremendous opportunity of learning about a foreign culture right on your door step.


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Magdalena Szewciów  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 00:37
Member (2008)
English to Polish
+ ...
Depends on motivation I guess Apr 11, 2012

I have an Aussie friend who came to Poland 3 years ago with his wife (Aussie as well, so it wasn't all that 'easy' as in a mixed Polish/English marriage) and kids. He has been investing his time, money and effort in learning our difficult language ever since. I am proud to say that, even though he's not an ambassador or a politician for that matter, he can speak Polish. Yes, I can hear he's not from around here in the way he produces certain sounds, but by God he's good! And yes he can tell you much more than a 3- or 4-year-old. (i.e. we often speak about abstract objects, to put it lightly).

Therefore, I completely agree that (self-)motivation is a must, but only if paired with the willingness to learn.


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Erik Freitag  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 00:37
Member (2006)
Dutch to German
+ ...
Can he repeat this with a new language every 3 or 4 years? Apr 11, 2012

Magdalena Szewciów wrote:

I have an Aussie friend who came to Poland 3 years ago with his wife (Aussie as well, so it wasn't all that 'easy' as in a mixed Polish/English marriage) and kids. He has been investing his time, money and effort in learning our difficult language ever since. I am proud to say that, even though he's not an ambassador or a politician for that matter, he can speak Polish. Yes, I can hear he's not from around here in the way he produces certain sounds, but by God he's good! And yes he can tell you much more than a 3- or 4-year-old. (i.e. we often speak about abstract objects, to put it lightly).

Therefore, I completely agree that (self-)motivation is a must, but only if paired with the willingness to learn.


Can your friend repeat this with a new language every 3 to 4 years?


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Magdalena Szewciów  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 00:37
Member (2008)
English to Polish
+ ...
Dunno Apr 11, 2012

But - owing to his profession - he might have to. He's highly motivated, believe me. He already picked up some German.

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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:37
Hebrew to English
Mere mortals Apr 11, 2012

He sounds like a prodigy. Good for him.

The rest of us are just mere mortals though and many diplomats out there aren't blessed language learners. Although I'm not a fan of any language acquisition theory which claims it's only the territory of children and the young to be able to "absorb" language easily, I also think that, perhaps by purely affective reasons (affective filters etc), learning a language as an "older" adult with a busy schedule is another kettle of fish.
I'm only familiar with a handful of British ambassadors, but they don't tend to be a particularly "youthful" bunch.
We also need to consider that it's not as if British embassies are completely without local language provision just because the ambassador isn't fluent, they have local "fixers", translators and interpreters, local staff, junior British staff with language abilities. So we shouldn't have a panic attack just because "the boss" isn't a cunning linguist. (S)he'll be surrounded by people willing and able to remedy that situation.

I think it would be interesting to listen to a few foreign ambassadors to the U.K. to see just how "extensive" or "operational" their English is.....


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Stefan Blommaert  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 23:37
Member (2012)
English to Dutch
+ ...
Originating from that world... Apr 11, 2012

...I can only say that people, before being posted in a new country, have to take (for some it is indeed "undergo") intense language training, so that they at least are capable of functioning at basic level in the language of the country they are going to be stationed in. Most of the people I have had the pleasure of getting to know over the years, went well beyond that "basic level".

It is just a question of respect and politeness.

Granted; there are originating countries for which "taking language lessons" is just slightly more complicated and less obvious than for others, but being stationed 4 years in a country definitely justifies making an effort.


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 00:37
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
As a Brit I'm blushing. Apr 12, 2012

I live in Denmark, where no one can afford to take such a relaxed view as the British. Danish sounds like gibberish to everyone else because it is not paticularly distinct, and has 'soft' consonants of its own. My mother-in-law started enthusiastically learning English in her 50s when her son took a trip round the world, and talked eagerly to everyone when she visited my family.

BTW I was fluent within a year of moving to Denmark. Of course you can be fluent after a couple of years.
Even when diplomats have to move on, they would not find their language skills completely wasted. They might move to a country that spoke the same language or a similar one. It is nearly always easier to learn a third or fourth language than the second.

Many Danes make an effort to learn a little of the language before they go on holiday just for a couple of WEEKS. This may mean a whole year of evening classes. They do not all go to the same country and study the same language several years in a row, though many do, of course.

They ALL learn at least one language at school and many learn two. It is simply a necessity. The same goes for the speakers of thousands of other languages round the world. It is taken for granted that Scandinavians speak another language or two when they go abroad, for business at all levels.

What would happen if their ambassadors turned up in the UK and did not speak the lingo? Nobody would take them seriously for a minute!
_____________________________________

Back in the 60s when I did my A levels, two languages were not really exceptional.
We could read a newspaper and write letters to penfriends, and we read literature going back to Goethe, Molière and Racine for exams. We read modern novels and poetry without a dictionary in the other hand. So some diplomats might be expected to have that much from their schooldays. At least one language O-level was part of being properly educated then! My brother, a non-linguist engineer, had quite a passable foundation of French to build on when he was posted in Africa, and was soon fluent again.

I must admit I was shaken when asked to help nephews and nieces with French and German a generation later. I had forgotten - and could polish up again - far more than they were expected to know.
_____________________________________

I have a lot of relatives who have travelled, not great linguists, but from an age when we did not go round expecting everyone to speak English. It was regarded as common courtesy to speak the language, and I remember one aunt struggling, but proudly succeeding with Yoruba in the 50s and early 60s.

So what has happened to the British in the last twenty years?
I don't understand it!


[Edited at 2012-04-12 15:03 GMT]


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:37
Hebrew to English
Enough of the shame, it's just sensationalism Apr 12, 2012

The ridiculously misleading "1 in 40" does not take into account languages they already speak. For all we know they already speak five or six languages quite well, maybe they're onto their 8th posting in countries with totally unrelated languages....this would test even the most fanatical linguist/language lover.

In addition, what about mutual intelligible languages? Does it take this into account?
If the Russian ambassador can speak at least one Slavic language, then chances are he has a fair understanding of Russian, but just because he can't tick the "Russian" box he's included as one of the dreaded "1 in 40".

Conversely, an ambassador once stationed in Jordan but then moved to Morocco might say he can speak "Arabic" (the Levantine Arabic of Jordan) but I doubt this will help him much in (the Maghrebi Arabic speaking) Morocco, but he might not be included because he can speak "Arabic".

I'm always suspicious of any article which boldly states "Figures show....." and this one is no different. It seems to have more holes than a dartboard.

It also includes flat-out lies:

A number of British embassies, including in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Malaysia and the Philippines have no diplomats recognised as speaking the local language.


Utter drivel. Our current ambassador to Egypt, James Watt, is a fluent Arabic speaker, which can be easily verified online:
http://ukinegypt.fco.gov.uk/en/about-us/our-embassy/our-ambassador/career-history
That's pretty poor journalism when they report something as "fact" that a two-second Google search can debunk.

Should they have ever closed the FCO language school? No, of course not, but it's open again now in any case Charles Crawford revealed on his blog that language teaching never really stopped.

"The FCO language Centre was indeed closed down under Labour. Was this bad? Probably. But it did not mean that language teaching stopped. In my own case I embarked on Serbia not via the FCO language Centre but rather with a hard-smoking sardonic Serb teacher called Zorica Radosavljevic in her small flat in Hammersmith. These days there are many new ways to learn a language via web-based training, so it may make sense not to have a heavy training infrastructure base in central London. "

Demonizing the diplomats and smearing them with lies is just pathetic journalism at its worst.

I'm not saying that the British don't have a problem with language learning in general, including an almost American-esque insular (cringe-worthy) attitude towards learning them, but I'll spare my blushes for more concrete evidence of linguistic ignorance.

[Edited at 2012-04-12 15:54 GMT]


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