Interview: Diplomats Learning Foreign Languages

Interview: Diplomats Learning Foreign Languages

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Diplomats learning foreign languages…

Many moons ago I resided in Negara Brunei Darussalam. No. Not Dar es Salaam. That’s in Tanzania. Brunei is located on the island of Borneo. It’s sort of penned in by the land below the wind (Sabah) and the land of chicken butts and beer (Sarawak).

Being a small country (around 350 thou) with an overly large diplomatic community, expats such as myself were drawn into their active social life. These events were fondly called “Dip Do’s”.

Even as a seasoned expat with a zany social life of my own, I’ve long been envious of the diplomat lifestyle. Just for starters, diplomats rub shoulders with top movers and shakers, they hear undiluted versions of what’s really going on in the world, and they get to travel to exciting countries using the diplomatic line at immigration (that alone should be a serious consideration for those thinking of a job in the diplomatic service).

A subject that didn’t come up often during the various social gatherings was learning the local language. I’m not surprised. Bruneians are highly proficient in English, so for communication English was the logical choice for the majority of expats and locals alike. Some of the more ambitious expats did learn Bahasa Malay and/or Chinese. Being a language wimp (and professing to be incredibly busy) I passed.

It was only when three ambassadors to Thailand started tweeting about their Thai language studies that I started thinking about the many opportunities diplomats have for learning new languages, and what I could learn from their advice. Why? Because every single interview in the Successful Thai Language Learners series has taught me plenty.


In order of arrival to Thailand’s twitter community, the three ambassadors are: US Ambassador Kristie Kenney @KristieKenney, British Ambassador Mark Kent @KentBKK, and Canadian Ambassador Phillip Calvert @PhilCalvert2.

My curiosity peaked when Mark Kent tweeted about other ambassadors to Thailand studying Thai: Australia, Germany, and New Zealand. Excellent. Game on.

Ambassadors are busy people (understatement). After reaching out to the various embassies, my thanks for the language learning experiences and tips shared in this interview go to (in alphabetic order by country): Canadian Ambassador Phillip Calvert, New Zealand Ambassador Tony Lynch, and U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney. I’d also like to thank my longtime friend and former Australian diplomat to Brunei (who has asked to remain nameless).

Note: Ambassador Mark Kent was previously interviewed in the Successful Thai Language Learner’s series.

And now on to the interview.

Interview: Diplomats learning languages…

How many languages have you studied and what is your proficiency in each one?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: Five, plus English. We are required to be fluent in English and French to be posted abroad. In addition I speak Mandarin well enough to conduct meetings, high school German (most of which is forgotten) and very basic Japanese (1 year at university). I had about 6 weeks of Thai, enough to give directions to taxi drivers and ask for beer and the washroom, but am starting up again this month.

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: Bahasa Indonesia, French, Thai – basic level for each.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: I speak decent Spanish, passable French, some Filipino dialects. I continue to work on my Thai every day.

Was knowing a foreign language a requirement for being hired as a diplomat?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: No, but it was a consideration when they look at the overall package. I spoke Mandarin but didn’t have much else to offer….

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: No, although this is changing – but language “aptitude” is important – ie the ability to learn languages. Increasingly many if not most new foreign affairs staff have two or more languages.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: While speaking a foreign language is not a strict requirement for joining the Foreign Service, many diplomats enter the business with foreign language skills or the willingness to learn. During the balance of one’s career, a U.S. diplomat can expect to learn several foreign languages. To help achieve this proficiency, the U.S. Department of State has a training center for American diplomats to study languages, culture and international affairs. Speaking foreign languages allows us to better communicate with people, which at its core is what we do every day as diplomats.

When I joined the Foreign Service I spoke passable Spanish and French. Throughout my career as a diplomat I studied Spanish, French and Thai.

Was your knowledge of local languages taken into consideration for future postings?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: With Mandarin I ended up having three postings in China, as well as being a negotiator during China’s accession to the WTO. I think it was taken into consideration, but so was local knowledge, which sometimes goes hand in hand with language skills, but not always. I’ve worked with some excellent non-language speakers who had other talents: judgement, interpersonal skills, deep knowledge of issues…

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: No.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: Language skills are a major consideration in any assignment decision, but other factors such as job knowledge and experience also come into play.

If diplomats don’t have the necessary language skills, but have the requisite job-related skills, there are often opportunities available for learning the language. A diplomat could, for example, study at the Foreign Service Institute, the State Department’s primary training institution, or perhaps study the language after arriving at the country of assignment. Most of our embassies have language programs available for diplomats to improve their language skills and learn more about their host country.

Retired Australian diplomat, Brunei Darassalam: I was recruited because of my accounting background and initially worked in the internal audit section of the department. I later moved into the consular and administration area of the department. For recruits for purely policy work a foreign language is highly desirable and often essential – although there was a standing joke that someone fluent in Chinese would have a good chance of a posting to Paris. Many positions overseas are advertised with language ability as a prerequisite – mainly policy positions (including Head Of Mission).

In a country like Brunei where English was spoken at a high level, particularly in their foreign Ministry it was not as essential to learn the language as it is for countries where very little English is spoken. I was given the opportunity to study for a few weeks in Australia, but as you know it is quite different from the Bahasa spoken in Indonesia.

I do not not know why I was chosen for Brunei but my knowledge of Bahasa may have helped a little.

In order to influence where your next posting would be, did you target the local language of the country you preferred?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: No. It worked the other way around.

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: No.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: Over the years, I always looked to serve in countries where my particular skill set was needed most. If I happened to speak the language already, as I did with my postings in Latin America, it was a huge help. I used my postings in Latin America to study advanced Spanish to improve my language skills. Whatever the scenario, I have always made learning foreign languages a priority.

Retired Australian diplomat, Brunei Darassalam: You would require a high level of language proficiency before it would help one attain a particular posting and you would have to study in your own time and there would be no guarantee of being selected for a particular position. Only staff selected for a position are normally trained during office hours.

How has your knowledge of foreign languages helped in your job?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: In China, it helped build personal ties and establish a good rapport with contacts, and have more interesting and frank conversations. Early in my career I was able to identify a multi-million dollar copper project from something offhand someone said to me on the sidelines of a meeting. It also enabled me to speak with locals and ordinary people about pretty much everything (politics, movies, famly life) so it enabled me to much more easily understand the country and get a feel for it. It also made travel much easier, so I saw more of the country. I’m missing that here in Thailand, with my limited Thai.

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: Yes, certainly – in terms of understanding the culture and the people of the host country, being more comfortable in operating in a new/different environment, and by and large English language capability lessens the further away from the capital (so, for example, I did have to use my bahasa regularly when travelling outside of Jakarta). The other aspect is that efforts to speak the local language are welcomed and applauded, by and large, by those you meet – it is seen as a mark of respect for the local culture, no matter how awkward or basic your knowledge of the language may feel.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: I strongly believe that speaking foreign languages and understanding foreign cultures are essential to effective diplomacy. Throughout my career, knowing how to speak the language of my host country has helped me tremendously. Let’s look at Thailand, for example. My Thai language skills broaden the number of people I can connect with – from University students and shop owners to government officials – as well as deepen my understanding of the Thai culture and people. I also find speaking directly with people (without using an interpreter) much more personable and enjoyable. It is simply a better way to connect with people.

Retired Australian diplomat, Brunei Darassalam: The Foreign Ministry had such fluent English (better than my Bahasa) so we always spoke in English. A knowledge of Bahasa was helpful when I was presented with invoices in the office. In most countries I was posted to, English was spoken extensively, except for Indonesia and Argentina.

Do your embassies have in-house or contract translators and interpreters?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: Our in-house people are either officers or assistants who speak Thai and English, not usually professional translators/interpreters. They can interpret if called upon to do so, and some are very good. For translation of written work we contract it out–a better use of resources.

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: Yes – we certainly do.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: At the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, we have an amazing team of very talented people. Many of our Thai colleagues assist with translation and interpretation as needed.

Retired Australian diplomat, Brunei Darassalam: Most of our missions have translators fluent in the host country language and English. They are often relied upon to translate official and legal documents. The translators I encountered were very good at their job.

Given that you’d be conversing with the cream of society in each country, what form of the language did you study first, colloquial or professional? If professional, did you tackle colloquial at some point?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: They tended to teach us professional language, and I learned colloquial a bit in the classroom, but mostly on the street.

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: Most schools start with fairly standard, basic language, and as the course progresses pick up more specialised expressions and language. Many teachers however do prefer to focus on the professional, and leave it to the students to pick up the colloquial in their daily contacts outside the school (which is a critical part of learning any language – to be familiar with what is actually spoken, rather than just a “BBC” version of the language.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: My primary goal in learning Thai is to be able to talk to people at all levels. I often talk to students, shop vendors, friends and government officials in Thai. While I started out studying professional Thai – focusing on vocabulary, social greetings and common phrases – I am now focusing more on speaking colloquial Thai.

Retired Australian diplomat, Brunei Darassalam: Staff are trained in professional and others in colloquial language depending on the level appropriate for the particular position and country requirements. I was taught colloquial Behasa Indonesia for three months to attain a basic proficiency.

Has your country upped its drive to support diplomats learning languages?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: Yes, we have designated language positions and learning difficult languages is a priority.

New Zealand Ambassador, Tony Lynch: Yes – particularly Asian languages.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: The United States government has always supported teaching its diplomats foreign languages. There is a dedicated training center for diplomats to study languages, culture and international affairs before they go overseas.

Retired Australian diplomat, Brunei Darassalam: If you google DFAT languages you will see that language training has been controversial, and there have been continual efforts to improve it.

Were you sent to private classes or a language institute?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: I was sent to a university for 8 months. I had already studied Mandarin at university, so it was partly a refresher with a focus on conversational work.

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: Yes.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: When and how American diplomats study languages varies – but in general – we study languages as part of our official duties. I also study and practice whenever I can so that I can improve my skills.

Retired Australian diplomat, Brunei Darassalam: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) uses many different training schools but has standardised exams to test proficiency. It uses one on one tuition, University courses, Military langiuage courses, and sometimes places students in country for study.

Were you given time off to study, or were you expected to study after work hours or on holiday?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: In our government language training is an assignment–full time study–for varying lengths of time, depending on the difficulty of the language. If you have learned a foreign language, you can also have maintenance courses a few hours a week.

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: Time off for full time/intensive study.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: When and how American diplomats study languages varies – but in general – we study languages as part of our official duties. I also study and practice whenever I can so that I can improve my skills.

Retired Australian diplomat, Brunei Darassalam: The amount of support staff received for language training was highest for the policy positions and of course it varied according to the country one is posted to. Some staff are sent off for a year to learn a language. Usually staff can study a language during office hours.

Did you receive a raise in pay for each language you acquired?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: No

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: We do not remunerate for language aptitude.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: Depending on the language and the fluency one achieves in it, some additional compensation is provided for some assignments.

If there was compensation for each language you took on, were the bonuses down to a medium or high proficiency?

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: “Language pay,” as it is known, is for those who achieve high proficiency in difficult-to-learn languages.

Retired Australian diplomat, Brunei Darassalam: There are language proficiency allowances paid according to the level of competency achieved. Payments are only made when a significant degree of competency is achieved, not a basic level.

The USA has the FSI and the Defense Language Institute. The UK has the Foreign Office Language Centre. Other resources available to the diplomatic community are… ?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: The Canadian Foreign Language Institute, part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: N/A (we use private language schools – in the main in-country).

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: The Foreign Service Institute is the U.S. State Department’s primary training institution for American diplomats to advance U.S. foreign affairs interests overseas. The training center provides more than 600 courses—including some 70 foreign languages. There are also a variety of online course available to diplomats and their families.

At the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok we have a robust language program available to Embassy employees and their families. I study Thai in class at least once a week and often spend time in the evenings reviewing flash cards and watching Thai television to improve my listening skills.

How many tours have you experienced, and how long is each tour?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: Four tours, two at three years, one at four years, and this one is four years.

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: Four postings overseas, with the average 3-4 years.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: My overseas assignments have included serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines and the U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador. I have also served in positions at U.S. Embassies in Jamaica, Switzerland, and Argentina. The length of tours varies, but U.S. diplomats usually serve in a country like Thailand for around three years.

Retired Australian diplomat, Brunei Darassalam: The posting period varies for each post, generally two years for difficult posts and three years for all others. Difficulty is assessed by a number of factors including security, climate, health and hygiene, availability of recreational facilities, variety of food and other goods and the general ease of living in the country etc. We normally would not make a fuss about these ratings to host countries for obvious reasons. All staff are covered by these periods except for Heads of Mission (Ambassadors and High Commissioners) who do not necessarily have the identical period of posting. We normally do not advise the host country of the Head of Mission’s departure date until the host country has accepted the nominated replacement Head of Mission. Each diplomatic service has different posting periods eg The Philippines often posts its diplomats for long periods – could be six years or more.

Did you experience language snafus arising from miscommunication? President Kennedy’s I am a jelly doughnut ‘misconception’ comes to mind, as does a more recent “ooops” by Tony Blair:

The virtual linguist: Blair decided to address the French media in French. Intending to say something like “I’ve always been envious of Lionel’s policies and whatever positions he’d taken,” Blair instead said “J’ai toujours envie de Lionel, même en toutes positions.” (Roughly: “I’ve always lusted after Lionel, in all positions”).

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: Let me put it this way: if you get the tone wrong in Mandarin, “pen” can sound like “vagina”…..and I know that different tones in Thai can mean different things…

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: My favourite story is of a diplomatic colleague who asked to borrow his teacher’s notebook for the weekend, but it turns out that the Vietnamese words for notebook and wife are very close. Beware of “false friends” – words that sound alike but have very different meanings to that intended!

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: Luckily, I haven’t experienced any major language embarrassment! But there are certainly plenty of experiences where I resort to sign language and gestures if my language skills need help. My recent efforts to describe why my watch needed to be repaired had both the repair man and I laughing as I struggled to explain in Thai.

And finally… what language learning advice would you give to those aiming for a career in the field of diplomacy?

Canadian Ambassador to Thailand, Philip Calvert: Learn an Asian language–especially a language whose economy is growing–and a language of a country you’d like to go back to…and force yourself to use it all the time once you’ve achieved a level of competence, or you’ll lose it quickly.

New Zealand Ambassador to Thailand, Tony Lynch: Language – and by that I mean communication – is critical to the role of diplomacy – to convey your message appropriately, and to understand others. Language provides an insight into the culture, and so a far better understanding of what is involved in any transaction. As an example – the fact that in Thai language there are different words for which side of the family your relations are on, and which order they were born (in contrast to English where it is just Aunt or Uncle etc) is a reminder that family is tremendously important in Thai culture. You will know that in some languages there are no direct translations of English words (bahasa Indonesia does not have a word for “exciting”) – sometimes whole paragraphs are necessary to explain certain concepts – and this works in both ways.

So my advice is that learning a language is not easy (the earlier you start the better!) – but it will provide great reward for perseverance!

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie A. Kenney: The best part of my job is connecting with people and learning about new cultures. I find it much easier to make meaningful connections when I speak the local language, so naturally I make language learning a real priority. At times it can be difficult to find the time, but I do my best to keep studying. I often study Thai at home while eating dinner, while stuck in traffic, or even waiting in the dentist’s office. I always have my flashcards handy and I never miss the opportunity to practice with my Thai friends.

My professional life is at an end, but working in the diplomatic field just might be an attractive consideration for those mulling over a career choice. Obviously, a diplomatic mindset is a must. And getting serious about learning a new language every few years would be something to think about as well. What say you?

11 thoughts on “Interview: Diplomats Learning Foreign Languages”

  1. Here’s an interesting viewpoint from the comments: Are females better at learning foreign languages?

    According to Cracked:
    The areas of the brain responsible for language are over 17 percent larger in women than men, making them the well-hung studs in the horse stables of conversation. Not content to just be bigger, women’s brains also multi-task; processing language in both hemispheres while men generally keep the conversation going with just the dominant side of the brain.

    The corpus callosum in a woman’s brain is reportedly larger too, meaning that women transfer data from one brain hemisphere to the other with high speed fiber optics, while the men’s brains are still on dial up.

  2. Keith, I don’t know about the US but in the UK there are many articles about how the British are falling behind in foreign languages both in the numbers of students studying, as well as those fluent in a second language.

    Learning a foreign language could be the passport to a bright future – principal

    The American ambassador is female (Kristie Kenney). I’m not making excuses here but women definitely go at second languages differently than men. For one, they are often less likely to seek the spotlight (bragging rights). This characteristic has been so noticeable that it’s been discussed online in a few posts and forums (perhaps not enough though).

    Female Polyglots and Language Learners – Where Are You?

  3. Does anyone have any impressions about the relative skills of Americans versus those from other Western countries regarding our abilities and willingness to learn other languages and understand other countries and cultures?

    How do our diplomats compare? I watched a video of the British ambassador address the Thai people in Thai. Could the American ambassador do the same? I fear that he/she could not.

  4. Two articles came to my attention this morning:

    Lack of language skills is diminishing Britain’s voice in the world
    Foreign Office beefs up diplomats’ language training

    Congrats UK!

  5. Anita, welcome to WLT, and ta 🙂 Thailand seems to have its fair share of diplomats interested in learning about the Thai culture. In comparison, Brunei had a lot of jaded diplomats (and expats). There’s certainly a lot more going on in Thailand than there ever was in Brunei (socially and culturally).

  6. I agree, this is a very interesting article. Ambassadors can be interesting, but they are a mixed bunch. In my experience there are two basic types: those that are merely civil servants looking to cozy up to government officials, etc. and those that are truly interested in inter-cultural dialogue and communication.

    The insights offered by the ambassadors you have interviewed surely puts them in the latter category.

    Very nice post, and great site.

  7. Scott, you just might be right about language structure. Bahasa Malay is basic and the Malay Bruneians are laid back, easy going about life. Chinese Bruneians (majority who speak Chinese of some sort) are not.

    Ta! This post doesn’t have many comments but it’s spiking my stats (odd how that works).

  8. I think this is a fascinating look at how much the world’s diplomats are expected to learn about their host countries’ culture and languages – and also as mentioned in some of the answers, it’s also a good insight into how much of a people’s culture can be learned by learning their language.

    A language is a means of communication, and that includes communicating about how the people who speak it, think. And how they see the world.

    A language that is grammar-heavy, shows that the people who speak it tend to prefer structure in their life, whereas a language that has little or practically no grammar, shows that the people who speak it do not care so much about structure in their lives.

    The diplomats of this world are people that we (or our governments, at least) choose to represent us overseas, and as such they are in a unique position to view several (or many) other cultures for extended periods.

    Fascinating article! I hope this one gets a lot of views 🙂

  9. Nine months seems a short time to learn a tonal language such as Thai. But I guess if someone has a talent for languages, they can put those hours too good use. Having language learning as a full-time job is a dream for many!

  10. A friend of mine who worked for the U.S. State Department had been learning Thai, but decided to take a break when he had to learn Polish and didn’t want to tackle both at the same time. They gave him about 9 months to become sufficiently fluent, and I that was basically his full-time job for that time. His curriculum consisted of several hours of instruction per day, along a couple more hours of conversation, and watching TV shows and movies for another couple.

    The countries he has been stationed in so far seem not to correlate with his prior foreign language skills (except English), but perhaps that’s how the State Department builds language competencies.

    He said learning Polish was harder than Thai, although that was when he was first starting to learn Polish, and I think that’s the hardest time for any language.


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