This subject leads on – vaguely – from Michael Gove’s outburst against translating fiction, because it prompted me to explore the linguistic skills of some of today’s politicians – ranging from all-powerful to backbenchers. Leaving aside the question of reading a book in French, Spanish or German, say, could they actually communicate with someone from another country?
The question is, of course, particularly relevant in the anglophone world, where we have grown lazy because of not having to worry about speaking another language, secure in the knowledge that most foreigners will speak English – what’s more, with a level of competency that usually puts to shame any attempts we might make at speaking their language. The teaching of foreign languages has been in steady decline throughout the UK, but most notably in England where GCSEs in foreign languages have been “in free fall” since 2006 when the government scrapped the need for young people to study at least one FL between the ages of 14 and 16.
So, how do our elected representatives measure up?
In 2004 NIACE (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) ran a Parliamentary Languages Challenge. As well discovering that more MPs speak Latin than a living language, the findings are not wholly surprising:
Over 100 MPs responded to the original challenge and the results show that they speak a total of 22 different languages. However, whilst only a small number of MPs (6%) are currently learning a foreign language, a healthy majority of them (65%) are enthusiastic about learning to speak more languages, if they had the time and opportunity, including one Downing Street-based MP who would like to learn Italian.
[Note: no prizes for guessing who that Downing Street-based MP might have been??!]
Just over a fifth of MPs said they could communicate in German, while only 3% could do this in Spanish and 4.5% in Italian. Some 5.5% said they could communicate in Latin and 3.5% could make themselves understood in Russian. Other languages spoken by MPs included Bengali, British Sign Language, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Gaelic, Hindi, Norwegian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croat, Swedish and Urdu.
A notable exception is Martin Linton, Labour MP for Battersea, who topped the league with six languages:
…English, Italian, Swedish, French, German and Welsh – and he can also read in another two languages, Danish and Norwegian.
Martin Linton MP said, “Usually the only chance I get to learn a language is on the plane, but it’s surprising how much you can pick up on a two-hour flight. A few useful phrases like ‘How much is this?’ and ‘I can’t afford it’. But if you have the time, it’s far better to go on a course before you travel. It gives your brain a bit of time to absorb the language. If I know I’m going somewhere new on holiday – like I went to Italy this year – I find I can just dip into a Italian phrase book now and then and use the little wasted moments of the day – waiting at the bus stop, queuing for a coffee – to get a few phrases under my belt. It saves an awful lot of trouble when you’re there.
He continued, “I’m always a little reluctant to go to a country where I can’t speak a word of the language. That’s probably why I’ve never had a proper holiday in Spain. I did a weekend break in Barcelona and felt like a prat having to say ‘No hablo Espanol! Habla Ingles?’ about twenty times a day. So Spanish is my next priority. And it can’t be that difficult if you do French and Italian a bit. ‘Eh? No comprendo! Por favor?’.”
As a party, the Lib Dems are probably the most linguistically gifted: 25% of them are bilingual, compared with 18.5% of Conservatives and nearly 15% of Labour respondents.
Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat spokesman for Wales and Northern Ireland, is a double rarity. His first language is Estonian, which makes him one of the relatively few MPs fluent in an accession-country tongue. Three MPs cited Welsh as their mother tongue, one Punjabi.
Opik can also get by happily in German, French and Welsh, in which he aims to become fluent. “When you compare our curriculum to other countries’, it’s risible how little attention we pay to languages,” he said. He thinks MPs should speak more languages but acknowledges that they do better than the general population “probably because of the opportunity they have to travel – and many have been privileged to get expensive educations.”
So much for Westminster, but what politicians at a global level?
Although it may not be best time to talk about Russia’s standing internationally, Putin is renowned for his language skills, and speaks fluent German, English, French and Tartar. As you can hear from the speech that secured the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, his English is very good – could any European leaders match this level – in Russian – I wonder?
On the other side of the world, Obama recently voiced a plea that Americans should learn to speak another language, and Spanish, in particular.
“>But instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English – they’ll learn English – you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language.
Obama praised Europeans for their knowledge of multiple languages, and he lamented the fact that most Americans can only “go over to Europe, and all we can say is ‘merci beaucoup.’
This stirred up the political commentators like a swarm of hornets – as you can find if you listen to this other youtube clip. The results of a phone survey showed that only 13% of Americans agreed with Obama and think that Americans should speak other languages. The response of the Republican representatives on the panel is also so stereotyped that it’s hard to take seriously – let’s hope we don’t have to.