We have all heard tales about polyglot diplomats capable of learning a new language in just a few weeks, adding it to a list already too long to count on the fingers of both hands. In truth, such individuals are rare. Many of us struggle to maintain our mastery of the languages offered in the entrance examination for the Ministry or acquired with considerable effort in the early stages of a career. After having served in a few posts, the appetite for learning new languages fades, attitudes relax and there is a tendency to fall back on English for working discussions, while at the same time stressing one’s attachment to French as the “official language of diplomacy”.
It has to be said that our working environment does not necessarily encourage us to make any real investment in our linguistic skills. The department’s offering of language classes is of high quality but not always compatible with the workload of a rédacteur or the demands of his or her line management. I remember my first deputy director who, learning that I was attending classes on Saturdays at the Finnish Cultural Institute, said, eyes wide with astonishment, in the style of Louis de Funès : “Finnish ! How on earth can anyone learn Finnish !”
However, knowledge of the language of the country of residence has numerous advantages. Contacts are easier, friendships quicker to establish and comprehension of the political and social context becomes deeper. Would we give any credit to the expert writings of an academic on a country whose language he did not speak ? It is rare to be able to acquire total mastery of a language to which we have not been introduced during our student years, but a working knowledge is within reach for those willing to make the effort.
In reality, there is no lack of opportunity to learn a language when abroad. In addition to the language of the country, which one can begin to study or continue studying in classes arranged by the Embassy, one can take advantage of the local language-learning options in evening classes. That was how I began to learn Chinese in Washington, how I sat the Test of Proficiency in Korean in Tokyo, and how I intend to keep up my German in Seoul by registering as a student at the Goethe Institute. While concentrating my full attention on the game in play, I have learned to stay one or two moves ahead and revise past moves, the better to remember them.
Language studies are not simply a pastime but must be seen as a genuine professional investment. Companies and local authorities looking for a diplomat to handle their international relations usually insist on the linguistic skills associated with a professional profile of that kind. Such studies enable us to keep up with our European colleagues, many of whom can slalom from one language to another and are all the more willing to speak French if they know that their interlocutor can also express him- or herself in their own language or in a third language.
And attending language classes also helps make new acquaintances. By signing on for Chinese classes when seconded to the head office of the World Bank in Washington, I rubbed shoulders with the future special representative of the Treasury Department in Beijing, a senior civil servant in the Korean Ministry of Education whom I contacted again on my arrival in Seoul, and a young Chinese woman who exchanged Chinese lessons for French lessons and whom I met again a few years later married to a rich businessman in Paris. By attending classes at the Korean Cultural Institute in Tokyo and Japanese-speaking circles in Seoul, I learned to put the cooling of diplomatic relations between the two countries in context. In my own case, evenings spent drinking Korean Makgeolli in Tokyo, or sipping Japanese sake in Seoul contributed greatly to strengthening the bonds of friendship between peoples.