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English-Only Diplomacy
April 13, 2012 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on English-Only Diplomacy

Since English is now the language of diplomacy, envoys from England and other English-speaking countries can get by without speaking other languages, unlike earlier generations of diplomats who needed to know the local lingo to succeed.

Presently in the British diplomatic service, out of the UK’s 1900 envoys, just 48 are proficient in the language of their host country.

“Only one in 40 British diplomats is fluent in the language of the country to which they have been posted…. Figures show that just 48 of Britain’s 1,900 overseas diplomats receive a bonus on their salary because they have an ‘extensive’ grasp of the language used where they are based.” Most of the others receive no extra money, indicating they cannot manage even do day-to-day exchanges,” claims Tory MP Stephen Barclay.

The Foreign Office has one Hindi speaker in India, one in North Korea, one in Afghanistan and Pakistan, linguistically thin on the ground for such diplomatic hot-spots. Some blame the lack of language skills to the decision to shut the Foreign Office’s language school a few years back (and just reopened).

An English-only foreign service is a big change from the days of the British Raj, where local language skills and the local knowledge came in handy for hobnobbing. How to pick  the best elephant for the tiger hunt (the leftmost, since most tigers are right-handed as you should know) and the sort of local knowledge that greases the wheels of state power in distant lands.

In the last decade the US has been paying big in blood and treasure to make the same kind of impression in central Asia, but that big Yankee footprint is English-only. Despite a Department of Defense directive in 2005 “to treat language capabilities as a core warfighting skill akin to marksmanship,” the transformation is anything but out in the field. Military linguist Colonel Richard Outzen calls it a fail. He argues that after six years, US armed services have no doctrine, organizations or practices for language management, relying instead on applying “band-aid approaches by contracting out language and related capabilities, while not reforming the way the field forces train for or employ language” skills.

“The Army never mastered languages and population-knowledge in Iraq or Afghanistan, and never made broad organizational or doctrinal changes to develop long-term capability in those areas.” Contract linguists are unsustainable and do not provide a long-term capability, he argues.

Outzen writes about an “institutional culture” that encourages commanders to learn to operate “without language and culture tools.

“The hard truth is that foreign language capability cannot simply be purchased, outsourced, or obtained through monetary incentive alone; it requires behavioral and institutional change, and constant affirmation that it is a core organizational function. “

By ancient practice, language has always been a core competency of both diplomat and conqueror, bearing either the olive branchs or oak leaves of state power.  But the new mode is to leave it to language service providers like myself to trim such state shrubbery. English-only makes it easier  for modern bureaucrats to outsource to guys like u.s rather than labor under the noon-day sun of second-language study.

Maintaining host country linguistic fluency is expensive and time-consuming affair for government workers in the midst of their foreign affairs. Career arcs count against it too, I think, in a world grown too small. Back in the days of the British Raj, when it took a month on a steamer to get to an assignment, career horizons were more local than for today’s jet-set policy-makers.

Outzen’s piece in Small Wars Journal is interesting. Informed commentary too.

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