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British diplomats falling short on language skills

International diplomacy is a prestigious and important profession, and one that requires expert communication and negotiating skills.

With this in mind, would it not seem obvious that a proficiency in foreign languages should be considered a vital competency for the job?

Apparently not. Recent figures show that only one in 40 British diplomats speaks the language of their host country fluently and that the majority lack even a basic understanding sufficient for day-to-day exchanges.


In India just one UK diplomat can speak Hindi, there is just one Arabic-speaking diplomat in each of the UK’s embassies in the regions of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Yemen, only one diplomat has a grasp of the local tongue in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in Riga, the capital of the EU’s fastest-growing economy (Latvia), there are no diplomats able to speak Latvian at all.

The effects of this shortage of language skills could be very costly to Britain as a whole. It is likely to be damaging Britain’s international reputation, and our relations with other countries, making us seem arrogant and uncooperative.

In North Korea, amongst five British diplomats tasked with persuading the country’s government to drop its nuclear programme, only one can speak a basic level of Korean. It seems astounding that such an important cultural aspect would be neglected when faced with negotiations that could affect the future of the entire planet.

The language gap could also lead to Britain losing out on lucrative trade deals that could potentially play a key part in helping us break free from the grips of the recession.

On a more positive note, there is an incentive scheme in place to encourage diplomats to learn the language of their host country, with sliding payscales depending on whether the employee has an “extensive” (close to communicating like a native) or “operational” (have a grasp of everyday language but are likely to struggle with technical or academic terms) knowledge of the language, or if they show a “confidence” in the language (being able to read signs or book a hotel room etc).

Yet unfortunately this incentive clearly isn’t working, with 90 per cent of the Diplomatic Service having no recognised language skills for the region in which they have been posted.

Worst of all, when compared to other countries around the world, it is clear that Britain is lagging far behind. Almost half of Australia’s diplomats are proficient in local languages, whereas there is a long list of British embassies in which there are no diplomats able to speak the local language.

This lack of emphasis on language skills is clearly short-sighted and doesn’t take into account the potentially serious implications.

There’s no doubt that a diplomat who is able to speak the language of his/her host country will be more efficient: she/he will make their contacts feel at ease and will be more persuasive in terms of political policy.

What do you readers think? What effect will the decline of languages have on international relations?

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About Sharon Stephens

Sharon Stephens is Operations Director of Lingua Translation. With a First Class Honours Degree in Translation and a University Lecturer in Translation (Masters), she is a self confessed language geek! Bringing the academic principles of translation and business together Sharon offers a quality-driven and needs centric translation and interpreting service - like no other.

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