During my early days as a diplomat, expertise in "hard" languages like Arabic, Mandarin, or Russian was considered a prerequisite for early career advancement. However, in recent years, such language skills have been viewed as too specialized and, in some cases, even detrimental to one’s career prospects.
The decision to close the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) language center in 2007 exemplified this trend. The fallout was severe: by 2012, only 48 out of 1,900 diplomats received language allowances for fluency in their host countries’ language. Some even attribute the decline in Arabic proficiency among diplomats to the Arab Spring.
It is not enough for a diplomat to speak only to leaders. Effective communication with locals on the street and a broad spectrum of citizens is vital. Accurate reporting of exchanges with host governments is crucial, but diplomats must also be able to identify trends and detect public opinion shifts.
Thankfully, William Hague’s decision to reopen the FCO language center signals renewed recognition of the importance of language and cultural awareness for British diplomats. However, unlike most European diplomatic services, language skills are not a criterion for promotion in the FCO. This mindset is akin to failing to consider an electrician’s rewiring ability in their job.
Intelligence agencies, faced with rising international terrorist threats, have realized the critical role of language skills in their work. Other security-related government agencies are also redirecting resources towards language training. As a result, a unified and strategic approach to language education in schools and universities is essential to enhance linguistic capacity among those responsible for diplomacy and national security.