Lost in translation: Why British ambassadors are on the back foot

Just three of the UK's ambassadors to the Arab world have a 'high level of fluency' in an Arab language

Education Editor

Imagine the scenario - there’s a crisis in relations between the UK and an Arab nation which is facing an uprising in the streets.

The ambassador from the Arab country goes on the Radio 4 Today programme to cross swords with John Humphreys to explain its position.

It’s not fanciful, is it? You’ve heard it happen before. No interpreters are necessary. The ambassador speaks fluent English.

What, though, would happen if it were the other way round? Would the British ambassador be able to go on the Arab nation’s equivalent of the Today programme and discuss the UK’s position in fluent foreign tongue?

Unlikely - since, according to figures cited today, only three of the 16 UK ambassadors in the Arab world have a high level of fluency in an Arab language.

“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,” said Sir Ivor Roberts, president of Trinity College, Oxford and a member of a panel set up by the British Academy to investigate the impact of our language skills shortage on the diplomatic, defence and security services.

The paucity of language skills amongst our ambassadors in the Arab world is also widely credited with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s failure to appreciate significance of various developments leading to the Arab Spring.

There was an inability to interpret postings on Twitter and other social media - leading to the UK being slow off the mark in reacting to situations.

Contrast this to 24 years ago in Russia, when our man in Moscow, Simon Lister, woke up to hear tanks on the streets and knew enough Russian to blag his way through three Army command posts and get a briefing from the general in charge - which was promptly communicated to Prime Minister John Major, enabling him to react to the fall of the Gorbachev government.

A matter of life or death

The consequences can be much starker than that, according to the report the panel published yesterday. It can quite literally be a matter of life or death.

Take the instance cited by Richard Ottaway, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee. A truck full of Iraqi citizens is driving towards an Army check point. “Stop the truck - or we shoot,” yells a soldier. “The Iraqis don’t understand a word they’re saying,” said Mr Ottaway. You can imagine what could happen next.

“The ability of military officers and patrols to communicate with local communities during ground operations can help not only with local engagement but might also mean the difference between life and death,” says the report.

According to the report, entitled “Lost For Words”, the UK’s language skills crisis is embarrassing for the diplomatic and security services and can have tragic consequences, a claim echoed by Mr Ottaway.

Consider another scenario; recall the success of the Bletchley code-breaking centre during the Second World War. Dramas about its achievements concentrate on the technological skills of the agents employed there - but the truth is they would have been nearly so successful if they had not also had language skills.

As Lord Stern, president of the British Academy, put it: “You can have all the code-breaking skills in the world but if you don’t have the language, you can’t understand it.”

Persistent deficits

The report concludes that “persistent deficits” in foreign language skills “threaten our future capacity for influence”. The current situation is quite literally “embarrassing” in terms of the UK maintaining its position in today’s global world, it said.

“Ultimately, if no action is taken, language skills within government will continue to erode until there are neither the skills within government nor enough new linguists coming through the education system to rebuild its capacity and meet the security, defence and diplomacy requirements of the UK,” it adds.

During the course of the panel’s investigations, the Security and Intelligence Agencies expressed “grave concern” at the continuing decline in the take-up of foreign languages and “in particular at the steep decline in lesser-taught and minority languages”.

“The need for advanced specialist language skills has traditionally been strongest within the SIA,” said the report. “In addition to the growing need for greater language capacity, the range of languages sought has changed greatly from Eastern European languages to Mandarin, Farsi, Korean, Somali, West African languages and the many widely divergent regional Arabic dialects.”

The report acknowledges that the crisis began with the decision to scrap compulsory language lessons for 14 to 16 - made by the Labour government in 2002. It praises recent efforts from the Coalition to bring in compulsory languages for seven-year-olds and to include languages as a necessary qualification for the English Baccalaureate - on which schools are ranked in exam league tables.

However, according to Baroness Jean Coussins, who chairs the all-parliamentary modern languages group, more needs to be done.

Are top A-level grades too hard to come by?

Teachers, she said, were urging their pupils not to do languages at A-level because it was considered more difficult to gain a top grade pass - thus bolstering the school’s position in exam league tables.

“Marking is harsher and more unpredictable,” she said. “The result is they’re too nervous to take languages. The Government needs to make sure that Ofqual - the exams regulator - sorts this out and gets a credible system in place before the next round of public examinations.” An investigation is under way.

Another suggestion put forward in the report is that the civil service should make more use of native speakers - living in the UK for whom English is a second language.

“While there are currently no explicit attempts to recruit more native speakers to the Civil Service as a whole specifically for their language skills, the SIA is increasingly recruiting native speakers for their language analyst roles,” says the report.

“GCHQ now targets universities with ethnically diverse student bodies for their recruitment drives in order to attract native speakers that are non-language graduates - as long as they have degree level competency."

“One of the benefits highlighted with recruiting native language speakers is that they are less likely to forget their language skills if they are not used for a few years - while language graduates may need regular refresher courses.”

Whatever the source of the new diplomats and security personnel recruited, there is no doubt that without them, according to Dr Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House who chaired the panel who produced it, Britain may indeed be “lost for words” in international diplomacy - as the title of the report suggests.

10 most vital languages for the UK* / % of UK citizens speaking them

  1. Spanish                            4

  2. Arabic                              1

  3. French                             15

  4. Mandarin                          1

  5. German                            6

  6. Portuguese                       Less than 1

  7. Italian                               2

  8. Russian                            1

  9. Turkish                              Less than 1

  10. Japanese                          1

*Source: British Council      

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