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Matt Field

British Diplomat

Part of Speakers' Corner

16th November 2013

First, you have to learn the language

First, you have to learn the language. Language is the key to a people’s culture, and culture is a key to people’s hearts. If you force them to speak your language, you will never win their sympathy” UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello.

LanguagesIt is fair to say that the British don’t have the best reputation for learning languages. The stereotype of a Brit abroad is one whose concession to locals is to speak English slowly and increasingly loudly. The number of UK high school students studying languages has been in decline for years, though that may bottom out by making them a compulsory part of the new English Baccalaureate. And the prevalence of our native tongue around the world could be seen as a disincentive for the hard slog put in by so many students of English.

Happily, the UK Foreign Service has redoubled its efforts to teach diplomats the language skills to thrive around the world. In September, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, opened a new language centre to train British diplomats before going to work overseas. The centre will deliver 70,000 hours of training per year, to 1,000 students, in 70 languages ranging from Arabic to Zulu. The target is a 40% increase in Mandarin speakers, 20% for Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish.

Many people are surprised the Foreign Office doesn’t require fluency in particular languages at the recruitment stage – contrast with the Brazilian Foreign Service tests in English, French and Spanish. (There are many things we’re not required to know, but that’s another post). We do get tested in our aptitude for modern languages, in a fascinating 3 hour exercise with a completely new language – mine was Kurdish!

But the majority of our jobs overseas come with some level of language training attached. As something of a language geek myself – the kind of person who could spend hours playing a languages game – it’s hard to imagine a better career. When I was chosen to come to Brazil, I had six months to learn Portuguese, from a standing start. (I had learned Croatian years ago before a posting to Zagreb). Thanks to some fantastic (and patient) Brazilian teachers, I arrived in Brasilia with enough Portuguese for my daily work. Last week I sat the advanced level exam, which should mean I can cope in most settings. What does this look like? Here’s our new Ambassador, Alex Ellis putting his Portuguese into action with Jo Soares.

Why does any of this matter? It comes back to the quotation above from Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian who spent his UN career winning people’s hearts and minds in some of the most difficult situations. Quite simply, speaking someone’s language shows you care, shows that you respect them and take them seriously, and you want to hear what they have to say. It’s as much about listening in a foreign language as speaking. And there’s nothing more important in diplomacy than that.

I’m reminded of an unverified story about Henry Kissinger. A journalist asked his older brother why he had completely lost his German accent while Henry, over the same period, had not. The brother replied that to lose your accent, you have to listen.