29 Nov 2013

International Diplomacy Under Threat from Lack of Language Skills

Poor language skills threaten UK interests abroad

Popular culture may occasionally portray diplomats as hapless members of the upper class, taking advantage of the old school network to languish in sunny climes, but the reality is that in many cases they are at the forefront of international developments.

However, a recent report from the British Academy has criticised the lack of language skills within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and wider government.

The paper, titled Lost For Words, urges the Government to prioritise the development of language skills for future generations, or risk damaging British diplomatic influence in the world.

“Languages are a critical tool through which UK diplomats and government staff can deepen their knowledge and build the trust that is necessary to promote and protect British values and interests internationally,” said Robin Niblett, chair of the British Academy inquiry steering group.

Britain is at risk of becoming “lost for words” if action is not taken to reverse the trend of declining language skills, he added.

One example given, in light of recent international developments, is the number of UK ambassadors within the Arab world who have a high level of fluency in an Arab language. Despite most ambassadors to Britain having a clear grasp of English, only 16 British ambassadors in Arab countries can boast fluency in the tongue of the country in which they live and work.

Sir Ivor Roberts, president of Trinity College, Oxford and a member of a panel set up by the British Academy, said: “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.”

Key government departments do not currently list language expertise as one of the job-specific skills they are looking for during the job appraisal process.

The report found a perceived stigma linked to learning a language despite various financial incentives being in place to boost the professional profile of learning a foreign language.

Rather than being seen as relevant only to a select group of specialists, the report says that language skills should instead be viewed as an extremely desirable asset for all government workers.

There is considerable variation across departments in terms of their commitment to foreign language learning, the report revealed.

Certain departments, such as the secret intelligence agencies, provide long-term investment in language training, whereas others typically use contractors and interpreters on an ad hoc basis.

However, the consequences of a breakdown in communication can be far more serious than an embarrassing faux pas over cocktails.

The Independent newspaper cites an example by Richard Ottaway, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee.

He poses the question as to what would happen if a truck full of Iraqi citizens driving towards an Army check point was told to stop by British soldiers speaking English. In this instance, the consequences of poor language skills could literally be a matter of life or death.

Helen Wallace, foreign secretary of the British Academy and member of the Lost For Words steering group, said: “The deterioration of language skills among British officials is both embarrassing and detrimental to the UK’s ability to conduct effective diplomacy.

“The de-prioritisation of language skills within government was short sighted, and the renewed focus on the importance of language skills must be sustained to safeguard the UK’s interests in the future.”


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