How does language shape international relations?
By Peter Miljak
Picture this. It was February 2017, then respective presidents of Japan and America, met in the oval office to discuss bilateral trade. As is customary in these kinds of events, both leaders pose for a photo. The pair are off to a good start with plastered smiles and an enthusiastic handshake. The Japanese press repeat emphatically “kochira onegaishimasu!” Which literally translates to “this way please”; politely requesting the pair to look at the camera. Trump, appearing somewhat amused by this, asks Abe; “what are they saying?”, with Abe replying swiftly, smile unwavering, voice steady; “please, look at me” – this translation seems adequate, but turned out to wreak havoc on the preceding seconds, as Trump turns to stare directly and intently into Abe’s eyes. We see glimmers of horror underneath Abe’s smile as he attempts to subtly point Trump towards the cameras to no avail, Trump's gaze does not falter, and the situation has reached peak awkwardness as the seconds continue to painfully roll by.
As a language nerd, I find that there is a lot to unpack in this hilariously awkward moment. Was this just an inevitable misunderstanding? Was Abe’s translation not clear enough? Or was their comedic irony in that Trump did not understand English as well as Abe in that situation? Nevertheless, it got me thinking about the role of language in international diplomacy; I was quite surprised at the high number of world leaders such as Abe who display a commendable grasp of the English language. Proficiency in English appears to be becoming more and more obligatory for world leaders, yet simultaneously, there is a case that the need for interpreters is greater than ever. Let’s explore some interesting trends in world leaders’ use of English and uncover what this means for the future of international diplomacy.
First let’s acknowledge the exclusive club of major leaders who have native-level English proficiency, which include few leaders outside of the obvious anglosphere nations such as Britain, America, Australia. This raises an important point as to the role of education in shaping English as the preferred language of international diplomacy. Independent UK based think tank, The Higher Education Policy Institute, surveys which world leaders received tertiary education in English-speaking countries as a measure of ‘soft power’, in other words, how well a nation passively exerts its influence around the globe. In 2021 out of 357 world leader positions surveyed, (although the United Nations has only 193 member states, many nations have more than one leader i.e., a president and a prime minister) 65 received tertiary education in the USA, 57 in the UK and 10 in Australia. While there may be some overlap for leaders who studied in multiple countries, the perceived prestige of an immersive English education is astounding.
Another interesting factor in shaping world leaders’ use of English is simply personal choice; some world leaders possess the fluency to give speeches in English at bilateral events but choose not to. There appears a tendency for more nationalistic leaders to prefer their native language, as by communicating only in the national language of one’s country, a world leader conveys the sense that they act solely for their country, rather than pandering to the increasing global dominance of English.
For former German Chancellor , however, preferring German over English in her speeches appears to come from a place of humility. When delivering public speeches at international events, Merkel will often begin in English, which she appears to speak quite clearly and articulately, before offering an apology and switching to German, by which she can express her thoughts more accurately. This is an interesting contrast to many other world leaders such as Shinzō Abe and French President Emmanuel Macron, who have given public speeches entirely in English more often, even when their accents could arguably be said to be more difficult to understand compared to Merkel.
However, it's important to remember that this widespread use of English only applies to public speeches and interviews, interpreting is generally essential for actual negotiations that occur between closed doors, as the language of negotiation is more complex than a speech or television interview which can be rehearsed to some degree. On top of that, some world leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jingping, have an unknown knowledge of English, and never use English in public events.
It would be unfair for me to analyse world leaders’ use of English without acknowledging the lack of multilingual leaders in English-speaking nations. It appears many leaders who are monolingual English speakers take their knowledge of a global prestige language for granted, although there are some notable exceptions including UK prime minister Boris Johnson who speaks French, or former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who speaks Mandarin Chinese, rare for a world leader of his generation. Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that foreign language deficiencies in anglophone nations extend beyond just national leaders, to diplomats, which can cause real difficulties in diplomacy and national security.
So, what will future diplomacy look like? Although it is likely that the current trends towards the use of English as lingua franca in diplomacy will continue, there is surely a possibility that English won’t be fully accepted, and we will see a rise in bilingual diplomats from English speaking countries. Already in the USA, knowledge of Spanish is becoming increasingly advantageous for politicians domestically, with three high profile democratic nominees in the last election (Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg and Cory Booker) being able to give television interviews in Spanish. Perhaps anglophone nations could take inspiration from China, who is already preparing for a future geopolitical landscape; at Beijing Foreign Studies University, future diplomats are now able to study a range of African languages including Tigrinya, Ndebele, and Comorian, which will be necessary for China’s Belt and Road initiative, and as Africa becomes more prominent on the world stage.
Ultimately, learning another language opens the gateway to cross-cultural communication and understanding, so whatever the future of international diplomacy, having diplomats skilled in foreign languages will no doubt remain essential to maintaining strong international ties all over the world.
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Codrea-Rado, A. (2013) “How important are languages for diplomacy and national security? ,” The Guardian, 27 November. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/nov/26/languages-diplomacy-national-security-livechat.
Hillman, N. (2022) 2021 Hepi Soft-Power index: UK slips further behind the US (again), High Education Policy Institute . Available at: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2021/09/02/2021-hepi-soft-power-index-uk-slips-further-behind-the-us-again/
Interpreter Breaks Down How Real-Time Translation Works | WIRED (2019) WIRED. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twCpijr_GeQ&list=PLl8pjvqZvptNltnBMUyQ7s_Wa4YF67IAp&index=2