When I learned Swedish before coming out to Stockholm I did so at a language centre in the city of London. This week the Foreign Office has reopened its own language centre, part of our “Diplomatic Excellence” campaign, to improve the skills of our people, the quality of our policy-making and the relevance of our overseas network.
The FCO rightly regards the ability to understand other languages and cultures as critical to successful diplomacy. I’m talking today (in English I have to admit…) at a conference at Stockholm University on diplomacy and “soft power”. The English language and its global reach is a key part of our soft power, ie our ability to influence through ideas and values. But we need to understand and influence in other languages as well. For me that means reading the press and social media in Swedish every day, listening to radio and TV. It’s also meant doing interviews in Swedish and even short speeches.
I’m lucky that so many people here speak fantastic English. But for British diplomats in most other countries, they need to be able to speak well, as well as to understand, the language of their hosts to get our messages across. It’s why our locally engaged staff (in Stockholm’s case mostly Swedish nationals or other nationals fluent in Swedish) are so important to us.
The new FCO language centre will offer 70,000 hours of language teaching each year, for up to 1000 students. We will be able to offer teaching in up to 80 languages, although most will be in Mandarin, Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian and German.
We’re boosting the numbers of our Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese speakers by 40% to build understanding of and influence in the Middle East and North Africa, China and the emerging economies, particularly in Central and Latin America.
It’s an important part of the ongoing effort to understand better and to influence more.