[lg policy] UK: Language skills are being lost in translation

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Apr 11 15:04:08 UTC 2012

Language skills are being lost in translation

Diplomats who are not fluent in the local tongue risk doing their
country a disservice.

By Charles Crawford

9:03PM BST 10 Apr 2012
Amazing as it may seem, not all foreigners speak English – or want to
do so. How then to explain the last government’s puffing up of
“multiculturalism” while they hacked away at the most vital of all
inter-cultural skills, the discipline of learning foreign languages?

In 2004, Labour dropped a requirement that all pupils learn at least
one foreign language to GCSE standard. The consequence is that
language learning in our state education sector is collapsing. They
also axed the Foreign Office Language Centre, outsourcing diplomatic
language teaching to ad hoc bodies and individuals. Yesterday’s report
in The Daily Telegraph, which suggested few diplomats are fluent in
the language of the country where they work, hinted at another of
Gordon Brown’s legacies.

As he tours Asia this week, David Cameron will want to hear our
embassies using tip-top language skills to help senior British
businessmen attack local markets. He should be happy enough: many
ambassadors and high commissioners today do speak local languages,
thanks to investment in their language skills, years if not decades
ago. The embassy in Tokyo is well stocked with Japanese speakers, not
least Ambassador Sir David Warren, who is on his third tour of duty
there. In Indonesia, Ambassador Mark Canning knows the language. In
Malaysia, learning Malay is less of a priority: English is widely
spoken across the country.

British diplomats are given extra allowances for each “hard” foreign
language they learn, the money varying according to the difficulty of
the language and the level of expertise reached. In happier times,
these allowances were paid for a few years after a diplomat had left
the country concerned.

Imagine the consternation of Foreign Office bean-counters when these
incentives actually worked! Some people learnt lots of languages,
handily boosting their salaries. So language allowances were scaled
back. The abolition by Labour of the FCO Language Centre was the
culmination of years of downgrading diplomatic language skills, mainly
by trimming such financial incentives.

Meanwhile, other cost-cutting plans unfold. Junior British diplomatic
staff are being replaced overseas by skilled local talent, especially
in our European embassies, whose façades look imposing but which in
UK-based staffing terms are being hollowed out. Many overseas jobs,
where young diplomats learn a language that will serve them well later
at senior levels, no longer exist.

Can the current language talent pool deliver a high standard in the
years and decades to come? It’s not easy even to measure the problem:
after all the spending on government IT, Foreign Office databases
still can’t run-off lists of diplomat language speakers and where they

Hence yesterday’s report that only one in 40 of British diplomats now
speaks to the highest level the language of the country where they are
posted. The figures somewhat underestimate the Foreign Office’s
language skills – some diplomats who do speak languages cannot face
taking exams again to prove it. However, the whole policy needs
gripping. It’s good to see William Hague reinstating an in-house
language-learning capability and otherwise prioritising British
diplomatic foreign language technique.

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?

My own favourite example of linguistic mischief came in Sarajevo in
late 1996. High Representative Carl Bildt and assorted ambassadors,
including myself, were asking the Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic
to accept an annoying Bosnian Serb proposal that meetings of the state
presidency alternate between the two entities. Izetbegovic lost his
temper and said in Bosnian, “OK, OK, we can rotate meetings every
first, second or fifth time!” (“Svaki prvi, drugi, peti put!”) To
protect him, Izetbegovic’s interpreter dishonestly translated his
outburst as his earlier line opposing any rotation.

When we returned to base, there was gloom at our failure to make
progress until I (the only one of us who spoke Bosnian) told the group
that Izetbegovic had made an important concession. The rotating
meetings took place.

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. Whoever you are, it’s vital to speak the
international language of courtesy.

Charles Crawford was British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and
Warsaw. During his career he learnt Serbo-Croat, Afrikaans, Russian
and Polish

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