Linguistic failures in diplomacy

The BBC series Ambassadors was a fictional take on the hapless British embassy delegation in the fictional country of Tazbekistan.

However, figures cited this week suggest that the programme’s drama and humour may be closer to the truth then we’d care to admit.

On Tuesday, the independent reported that only three out of the 16 UK ambassadors in the Arab world have a high-level fluency of Arabic.

The findings come after the British Academy set up a panel to investigating the effects the UK’s shortage of language skills is having on the country’s authority in diplomacy, security services and defence.

Sir Ivor Roberts , president of Trinity College, Oxford, and a member of the panel said of the findings: “Without the ability to appear on radio or TV defending or promoting the British Government’s point of view, their impact in a country will be very limited.”

The report published by the British Academy, entitled Lost for Words, concluded that the lacking of languages skills was “embarrassing” and that it would “threaten our capacity for future influence”.

It continued: “Ultimately, if no action is taken, language skills within government will continue to erode until there are neither the skills within government nor enough new linguists coming through the education system to rebuild its capacity and meet the security, defence and diplomacy requirements of the UK.”

Diplomacy in inaction

The report blamed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s failure to react swiftly to developments that led to the Arab Spring. Ambassadors in those regions were unable to interpret what was being posted on Twitter and other social media channels.

The report also pointed out two recent historical periods where a fluency of foreign languages served the UK so well. First, when the UK ambassador to Moscow, Simon Lister, heard tanks rolling through the streets of Moscow, he had to blag his way through three army command posts using his best Russian in order to know what has happening. Only after speaking to the general in charge could we report back to Westminster that the Soviet government had indeed fallen.

Another examples emanates from the Second World War, and the successes of the Bletchley code-breaking centre. While Hollywood has often glamourised the technological know-how of the code-breakers, president of the British Academy Lord Stern wrote in the report that: “You can have all the code-breaking skills in the world but if you don’t have the language, you can’t understand it.”

Language education

The report blamed a large part of this shortage on the decision made by the Labour government in 2002 to scrap compulsory language lessons for 14-to-16 year olds, but did praise recent efforts to bring them back for seven-year-olds, while a second language is a necessary component to a English Baccalaureate qualification.

Effect on the civil service

The Lost for Words report also stated that, while the civil service hasn’t officially stated that it is seeking people with language skills, GCHQ and the SIA are increasingly targeting and recruiting foreigners for roles that require a foreign languages.

A bold precedent for the civil service, but one that, according to the report, might just be necessary should Britain want to remain a leading figure on the world stage, and not see its diplomatic figures tongue-tied or, indeed, lost for words.

At Today Translations, we have provided translation and interpreting services to political and diplomatic figures, including Mikhail Gorbachev and King Abdullah II of Jordan. We believe that language and linguistics plays a vital role in all fields, be it politics, business, charity or sport.

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