Global Lingo Blog

Linguistic misunderstanding in important situations

Figures show that only 48 of Britain’s 1,900 diplomats have an ‘extensive’ grasp of the language used in the country where they are based. These 48 diplomats receive a bonus on their salary as they are able to communicate fluently.

This means that there are 1,852 diplomats who are not proficient enough in another language, if at all, to communicate effectively.

Only one in 40 diplomats is fluent in the language of the country they are posted to

This is alarming; sending a diplomat representing the UK to a country where they cannot speak the local language could project a message that we are not interested in learning about their culture or in communicating effectively with them.

A knowledge of the local language shows that the UK is keen on building a good relationship and that we wholeheartedly value the connection between our countries.

Valuable trade deals lost because of an inability to communicate?

Recently the UK lost out to France on a £7 billion deal to supply fighter jets in India where only one of our diplomats can speak Hindi. Korea is another example where poor language skills may be effecting our relations. Only one of our five diplomats posted in the country can speak Korean, and only at an elementary level!

Language school closure

One cause of our linguistic misunderstandings is due the decision by the Labour government to close down the Foreign Office’s language school in an attempt to save £1 million a year.

Undoubtedly the costs saved by the decision to close the school have been outweighed by the trade losses and weakened relationships the UK has incurred due to miscommunication.

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

It is embarrassing that we send diplomats to countries in order to facilitate relations with them, yet they often have no grasp of the language needed in order to accomplish this.

I always assumed that if someone was afforded such a prestigious job as that of a foreign diplomat representing our country, then the minimum requirement would be that they were fluent in at least one foreign language, allowing for effective communication and stronger relationships abroad.

The Daily Mail report that:

‘‘There are no diplomats registered as speaking Latvian in Riga, the capital of one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies. There is only one Arabic speaker registered in each of our embassies in Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. There is only one diplomat with a grasp of the local language in Afghanistan and Pakistan, key crucibles of terror. Many embassies, including those in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Malaysia and the Philippines, have no one proficient in the local language.’’

It’s not all bad news

The Foreign Office language school was reopened last year so hopefully we can look forward to a future of many more multilingual diplomats emerging.

Dominique Jackson highlights how: ”the dumbing down of the diplomatic service is a danger and a disgrace.” The benefits of learning or at least attempting to learn a language go beyond merely learning grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. Learning a language generates respect and appreciation as well as providing an invaluable insight into a culture. And Charles Crawford discusses how: ‘‘diplomats who speak local languages know more, and get better results.’’

How do we expect to improve foreign relations and consequently our economy if we are not bothered to communicate with people, in their own language, on their own soil?

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