The Linguist

The Linguist 59,1 - February/March 2020

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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FEATURES 10 The Linguist Vol/59 No/1 2020 Can the Foreign and Commonwealth Office ensure its language needs are met? James Halstead investigates C hoice of language is important in any situation, whether that involves choice of words or choice of tongue. It shapes how one is understood and perceived. In international diplomacy, such choices are arguably even more (and ever more) imperative. In 2012, The Telegraph claimed that only one in 40 UK diplomats could speak the language of their host country. That is to say that 97.5% of our diplomats could not carry out their duties in the main language of the country in which they were posted. When I joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) China Network more than seven years ago, I worked out of the British Consulate-General in Shanghai in a department numbering several dozen people. I was the only UK national with fluent Mandarin. I later moved to the British Embassy in Beijing and found the situation marginally better – there were three of us. Fast forward four years and things were much improved; I moved to a different department within the embassy and found that all of my British colleagues were competent in Chinese. In 2013, the FCO opened its own language teaching centre, similar to those in other nations, such as the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in the US, and it has continued to increase and expand its emphasis on the linguistic abilities of a wide range of staff. In 2020, it aims to hit its target of ensuring that 80% of incumbents in what it terms 'Speaker Slot' positions are competent in the language of the country in which they serve. These are roles in which diplomats are expected to utilise their language skills while carrying out their duties, such as in negotiations, media interviews and research. To take Heads of Mission as an example, in 2015 around 39% were considered competent in the language of their host countries, but by the start of 2019 this was closer to 79%. This development coincides with the introduction of exams for Speaker Slot postings in 2015. Run by CIOL Qualifications, the examinations programme is designed to equip officers from the diplomatic service and a range of government departments with the appropriate level of language skills for their roles overseas. Assessments are delivered in 40 languages a year at four skills levels. INTENSIVE TRAINING The FCO network has nearly 600 Speaker Slots. Such diplomats need to be able to operate in a range of contexts, including social repartee, political dialogue, everyday practicalities and fiscal policy. They need to be able to discuss denuclearisation as effectively as they can book a doctor's appointment or order a round of drinks. Depending on the language they are learning, they can attend classes for up to a year at the Language Centre in London, which teaches languages from Arabic to Zulu. Coursework covers everything from conversation basics to negotiating trade deals and prisoner welfare. Their studies culminate with an exam followed by a posting to a country that speaks the language they have been learning. They may then continue with a shorter period of in-country language learning before beginning their role in earnest, or continue with weekly lessons while engaging in the role. I benefitted from this type of study while in post as part of a small group preparing for the highest level exam (C2), which two of us went on to sit and pass. This was very useful as the exam can cover any eventuality a diplomat may face, and is not restricted to the person's immediate role or area of work. THE FOUNDATION OF DIPLOMACY TEAM WORK Christina Scott (centre), Minister and Deputy Head of Mission, with colleagues at the British Embassy in Beijing in 2018

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