Global leaders speak English, occasionally

Turkish president Abdullah Gül speaking with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev

Turkish president Abdullah Gül speaking with former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev

In the podcast I set Marco a quiz. I play him five current heads of state speaking English. He identified two of them. Go on, you know you can do better…answers at the bottom of the post.

In the meantime, here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Aaron Schachter.

When Turkish President Abdullah Gul spoke at the UN General Assembly last week, he started with this: “At the dawn of the 21st century, we had every reason to be optimistic about the future…” And then he stumbled. But it didn’t matter. He had made his point already.

Just by speaking in English, Gul conveyed his support for the US, says Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“When choosing whether to speak in a foreign language … you have to balance symbolism, on the one hand, and the need to be understood on the other,” Singh says. “Speaking to a foreign audience in their own language can be a very powerful gesture of outreach and respect, even if frankly the phrase that you use or the attempt to speak the language is not particularly fluent.”

Israel’s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, spoke English every chance he got, with a heavy accent, and pretty basic vocabularly — certainly more basic than when he spoke Hebrew. Many Israeli officials — and Israeli citizens — see speaking English as a sign of their importance on the world stage and their friendship with the US.

But English can send the wrong message for some leaders, and separate them from their people. Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks English, but rarely speaks it in public. And never in a diplomatic setting.

Russian president Vladimir Putin singing "Blueberry Hill" in English at a charity fundraiser.

Russian president Vladimir Putin singing “Blueberry Hill” in English at a charity fundraiser.

Phillip Seib, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, says sometimes diplomats refuse to speak English out of national pride.

“They have their own language,” Seib says. “Why should they speak someone else’s language? Particularly in developing countries, this is a way to assert themselves. And they just don’t see any reason to conform to others’ linguistic abilities.”

And there can be risk in speaking English. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, spent several years earning his Ph.D. in Scotland. And you’d think that if he can understand and speak that English, he could easily speak English to an American TV audience or at the UN.

But when the issues are so nuanced, and the relationship so fragile, says Iranian-American writer Azadeh Moaveni, Iranian leaders like Rouhani want to play it safe. So they use their native langugage, “just because it is the one in which they’re most forcefully articulate, polished and can have the most sophisticated statements and arguments.”

And there’s an added benefit from using an interpreter. The time waiting for interpretation gives you a few extra seconds to think. And if you’re seen as saying something controversial, you can just blame it on a bad interpretation.

Answers to the quiz on foreign leaders speaking English:

1. Vladimir Putin
2. Manmohan Singh
3. Angela Merkel
4. François Hollande
5. Rafael Correa

Listen above or on iTunes.

The World in Words is also at PRI and on Facebook .


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7 responses to “Global leaders speak English, occasionally

  1. I’m always sad that our president doesn’t speak any languages in public. He must know some Indonesian and Arabic. I know he’d be skewered politically for being a crypto-Muslim whatever, but that’s what you get for knowing something about un-American foreign-types.

  2. Concerning the usage of English by foreign politicians, perhaps it could be interesting to you the topic that occupied every social media and every conversation all over Spain last September. The mayoress of Madrid, Ana Botella issued her speech in English, when defending the candidacy of her city to host the Olympic Games 2020. It came last, and a big part of the blame was directed at her bad accent and the use of some expressions in Spanish during the speech, like the now (in)famous “[you can enjoy] a relaxing cup of café con leche in the Plaza Mayor”
    Even remixes have been created, with great success.
    I am one of the very few Spaniards, not supporters of her party, that has shown the opinion that her accent was not so terrible, at least not much more than that of some leaders who appeared in your podcast, and that the criticisms arise from a bit of a complex of Spanish people towards foreign languages (she is also a quite unpopular figure, seen almost only as former Spanish prime minister Aznar’s wife, by the way, but that’s another story). In you understand Spanish, or can use an automatic translator, you can read my opinion here:
    As far as I know the whole issue has not had any repercussions outside of Spain, and I suspect that foreigners do not see the point in the fury, either.
    I’m curious to know what do you think of that. Perhaps it’s an interesting topic for another podcast episode 🙂

    • patricox

      Thanks, that’s very interesting. I’ll bring it up with a couple of reporters I know in Spain.

    • When Ana Botella elected to communicate in English it was difficult to comprehend due to her strong accent. I don´t know why she could not have spoken in Spanish with an interpreter.

  3. President Dilma? No! Lol! She can’t even speak a decent, well formed Portuguese let alone English. Sorry to disappoint you guys…

  4. Presidents and prime ministers have interpreters so they do not necessarily have to communicate in another language.

  5. wornu rex chima

    I want to know if there has been a world leader that spoken his language in a world broadcast except with english language

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