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Lost for words: the value of investment in language training for diplomats

Published on 04 December 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

The recent opening of a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Language Centre, a replacement for the FCO language school closed in 2007 to cut costs, has highlighted the role languages play in diplomacy here in the UK.

British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, speaking at the opening of the Centre, said: ‘The ability to speak, read, listen and write in a foreign language is one of the fundamental skills of our diplomats. Without it they cannot get under the skin of a country and really understand its people.’

The UK has the luxury of English being the lingua franca of business, science, and technology. This has allowed it to neglect language skills in recent years, both at the international relations level, and in education, to the extent that the UK is now largely a monolingual country.  This decline is now widely regarded as short-sighted and damaging to the economic future of the country.

A report  published this week by the British Academy – Lost for Words – warns that if the UK government does not urgently increase its commitment to language skills, and develop its capacity, the UK is in danger of losing influence.

In an online debate hosted by The Guardian newspaper last week,  the great and good of diplomacy and linguistics in the UK and USA spoke for languages as a vital skill for diplomacy.

FCO Chief Operating Officer, Matthew Rycroft, said: ‘[Languages] are crucial for diplomacy — engaging with people around the world by speaking their language and listening to them.’

Rycroft speaks French, German and Bosnian, the latter as a result of six months of learning and a few weeks of immersion on a homestay with two separate Bosnian families. He believes the experience was key to his understanding of the language. He said: ‘[Immersion training] has huge value not just in terms of learning the language but also getting to know the culture and traditions from local people outside the capital city.’

Bill Rivers, Executive Director for the US Joint National Committee for Languages, who himself speaks Russian and French to a professional level, along with ‘smatterings’ of Spanish, German and Kazakh, said: ‘In the States, we’ve long recognized the value of linguistic and cultural skills for diplomacy and security.’

Rivers went on to stress that ‘language capacity takes time and investment, whether at the personal or institutional level….We’ve a cultural tendency to look for quick solutions.’

It seems, as ever, that funding is the key issue for developing and maintaining operational language skills. Languages are an easy area to try and save money, because the return on investment is not easily quantifiable, and the supply of language training is as diverse as its quality.

In these days of Google Translate and numerous language schools worldwide, devoting time and money to language skills requires strategic forethought, and a clear understanding of what makes an effective diplomatic service.[1] Cultural understanding, flexibility of thought and the ability to influence are integral to the diplomatic skillset. All of these skills are negated if the diplomat is unable to understand the language and culture in which they are operating.

During the online debate, former UK Diplomat, Charles Crawford, cited an example from a meeting in 2008 when Bosnian President Izetbegovic’s interpreter deliberately mistranslated what he had said in a meeting with High Representative Carl Bildt and other ambassadors. All of the international diplomats except for Crawford missed his important policy concession because they did not speak the language.

Learning the manners, idioms, jokes and slang of a country is as important as learning its political structure and history. To perform at the highest level and get tangible results, consistent and long-term investment in languages and cultural immersion is essential. 

Lost for words: the value of investment in language training for diplomats
Alex Oxborough is Sales and Marketing Executive for language training consultancy and agency, Specialist Language Courses.
A semi-regular guest blogger for DIplo, Alex holds an NCTJ Diploma in Multimedia Journalism and has an active interest in diplomacy and the role it plays in today’s world.



[1] Diplo is currently enrolling for its online course in Language and Diplomacy. Closing date for Credit course is 16 December 2013 with Certificate applications closing on 13 January 2014.

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