Learning foreign languages – an important part of PD

The USC Center on Public Diplomacy published an interesting blog post by Sharon Hudson-Dean entitled “Improving the ‘art’ of diplomacy with foreign languages.” http://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/index.php/newswire/cpdblog_detail/improving_the_art_of_diplomacy_with_foreign_languages/

In her post, Hudson-Dean argues that foreign diplomacy is all the more effective when the diplomats engaging with foreign nations are able to speak and understand their language. She explains that the State Department is set apart from other foreign ministries across the globe, because U.S. diplomats within State’s FSI (Foreign Service Institute) spend many hours a day studying foreign languages and cultures (Hudson-Dean 2014).

In the title of her post, Hudson-Dean calls diplomacy an “art.” In order to be successful, diplomats must be as prepared as possible, and be able to demonstrate “cultural acuity” (Hudson-Dean 2014). To become knowledgeable and well-aware of the cultural specificities of a nation, it is not enough to simply study that country from afar. First-hand experience is crucial, and that experience can only be enhanced when diplomats are proficient in that nation’s language. It can be difficult to engage with foreign nations and members of a foreign society without being able to communicate effectively. Hudson-Dean highlights the example of American diplomats in Kyiv, who meet with the country’s leaders by speaking to them directly in Ukrainian and Russian (Hudson-Dean 2014). This is an important tool in the U.S.’ foreign policy with respect to Ukraine, particularly in light of this European nation’s recent and ongoing struggles.

At the end of her post, Hudson-Dean shares a very important quote by Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” (Hudson-Dean 2014). These words are extremely relevant in the realm of public and foreign diplomacy. Engaging with foreign nations in their own language demonstrates that the United States and its diplomats have a keen interest in that country. It shows that their nation and language are worthy enough to warrant the time and dedication U.S. diplomats and leaders take in order to successfully and respectfully interact with foreign nations. Moreover, having the ability to communicate with foreign officials and members of the public can only enhance the probability for success in any diplomatic endeavor, as both linguistic and cultural misunderstandings can be avoided.

I have taken many cross-cultural communication classes here at AU throughout both my undergraduate and graduate studies, and I have learned that culture is quintessential and inevitably comes into play when nations come into contact and engage with one another. Understanding a nation’s cultural context is crucial to achieving successful diplomacy abroad, and learning to speak the language is an important part of the equation.

In his chapter “Culture and Constructivism,” Van Ham explains the notions of constructivism and social power, and how they relate to international politics and relations. He defines social power as “[…] the capacity to produce, shape, and influence the motives, attitudes, roles, and interests of actors in international politics (by non-coercive means)” (Van Ham 47). Social power is similar to Joseph Nye’s soft power, in the sense that both are means of influence and persuasion that can be achieved without the use of coercion. A crucial component in the pursuit of effective social power is the knowledge and understanding of a nation’s culture, as mentioned above. According to Van Ham, “[…] culture is the central prism through which “reality” acquires meaning [and is] constructed, and hence is implicated with economic and political interest and motivations” (Van Ham 47). As Van Ham argues, culture transcends all boundaries, and inevitably comes into play in all realms of influence, including politics and economics.

4 thoughts on “Learning foreign languages – an important part of PD”

  1. I agree that diplomacy at the government level is most effective when diplomats have taken the time to study the language of the country in question and the cultural customs of its people. I think that sometimes we take for granted the amount of effort that goes into learning a foreign language. Yes, it is the diplomats job to learn the language and customs before they are posted and yes, they are getting paid to do this, but so much more goes into it.

    It is extremely difficult for adults to grasp a new language compared to children who learn a second or third language at an early age. I agree with Hudson-Dean in her article about the importance of conversing with a foreign national in their own language being most effective. Because of this, it is very important that the language and culture classes at FSI be taken seriously. It’s all fun and games until you are placed in a completely foreign land and you can’t remember the basics while talking with a foreign dignitary. At that point, you’ve not only embarrassed yourself, but you have let your country down by missing a crucial piece to the pubic diplomacy puzzle.

    With that being said, I believe that knowing the language of our foreign counterparts isn’t as important for people-to-people diplomacy among citizens. Human decency and kindness transcend language barriers. I am currently working with a refugee family who is resettling here in the DC area. They have only been here for about 1 month and know very little English and I speak absolutely no Arabic. However, I have managed to recognize aspects of each family members’ personalities and have learned much about their cultural customs. No, we are not negotiating governmental policies or conversing with heads of states, but we are engaging in a form of public diplomacy. I am helping them become accustomed to their new home in America and teaching them English and I am slowly but surely learning about their home country and experiences.

  2. I enjoyed the quote in your post by Nelson Mandela and I completely agree. Knowing a foreign language is an integral part of public and cultural diplomacy. Rhonda Zaharna states in her chapter that “the greater the cultural knowledge, the more effective the public diplomacy initiatives will be (Zaharna, p.119).” This cultural knowledge encompasses not only the different primary sources of culture, but language as well. In order to have a successful outreach to foreign publics, one would be more inclined to use the language of that area.

    Unfortunately, only around 18% of Americans speak a language other than English in 2010 . Of course this percentage is increasing each year, but what can be done to increase bilingualism even more? A recent blog post from February 5th discussed the increase of bilingual French programs, which I found also very interesting.This emergence of dual-language programs is not only a display of French public diplomacy, but it also exhibits an increasing number of multilingual students in the United States.

    Although it should be common knowledge, knowing a foreign language is essential to public diplomacy. In my opinion, this increase of bilingualism in American students is crucial to form a current understanding of different cultures, as well as to shape the future diplomatic leaders for tomorrow.

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