A recent report on language skills by the UK’s national body for the humanities and social sciences, The British Academy, gives a lot of food for thought, not only for the UK but for Turkey, too.
The 90-page report, Lost for Words: the need for languages in UK diplomacy and security examines Britain’s linguistic capacity within Government and concludes that there are persistent deficits in foreign language skills. If the government doesn’t act, it will not be able sustain its capacity to meet security and diplomacy requirements.
In today’s interconnected world, language skills are becoming even more important. It is not only in international relations, but in the areas of military, national security, law enforcement and tackling organised crime, supply of foreign languages are essential for countries.
The report says “How well-equipped a society and its government are in terms of languages skills should be regarded as a key indicator of how prepared they are to operate effectively within the fast- changing landscape of global engagement.”
Compared to many other countries, Britain always have had a strong reputation for good language skills and geographical expertise of its diplomats. Embassy staff went through several months of language training before taking up their posts.
I personally met many ambassadors and more junior diplomats that spoke excellent Turkish or Azeri or Uzbek, as well as more mainstream languages.
In recent years, language training was cut down due to budgetary constraints at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The British Academy report says that the decline in language skills is particularly noticeable in “hard to learn” languages such as Arabic, Mandarin and Korean.
One of the most interesting points that came out of this study was how the lack of Arabic knowledge contributed to the inadequate response by the FCO during the Arab Spring.
It is suggested that the reason for the FCO’s failure to appreciate the significance of the developments leading to upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa was due to shortage of Arabic language skills within the Department.
The report highlights similar incapacity elsewhere. In 2010, out of 161 British diplomats in Afghanistan, only three spoke Dari or Pashto fluently.
For many years now, we’ve been aware of problems caused by the lack of understanding of both the languages and cultures by military forces in war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers shouting in English to people and vehicles to stop and then opening fire when they did not obey, have become frequent occurrences with tragic results.
If an adequate linguistic capacity is essential to maintain an influential voice on a global stage, Turkey has a long way to go, too.
A 2012 report by International Strategic Research Center (ISRO – USAK) titled + USAK Reports, No.4: “Turkey’s Power Capacity in the Middle East: Limits of the Possible”
COMMENTS: PDF Version revealed that Turkey is a country suffering from an “expectations-capabilities gap” in the Middle East. Without addressing these deficiencies, it will be unable to become a regional leader.
USAK report pointed out that in 2011, out of 135 Turkish diplomatic staff serving in Arabic-speaking countries only 6 people spoke Arabic.
This number may have increased since then, but Turkey’s ambitions and capacity clearly still do not match.
In many European countries, senior diplomats are increasingly multi-skilled. I have met ambassadors who were serious scientists posted especially in countries with rich energy resources, for example.
Turkey’s foreign ministry, too, used to have a good reputation for its career diplomats to be well-resourced in international law, maritime, defence and trade issues. Perhaps, they were less so in environment, science and energy fields.
With recent changes to the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s recruitment policies, there are concerns that the Ministry’s long-held distinction will be lost.
In 2012, when Turkey pulled out of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), I had serious doubts about the strength of vision on the part of Turkey’s politicians.
A strategic and long term vision for improving the country’s scientific and linguistic capacity requires non-partisan, secular education policies.
In that context, the current show-down between the government of the Justice and Development Party and the religious community of Fethullah Gülen over educational establishments, inspires neither confidence nor optimism.
This post is also available in: Turkish