Potato, Patata

World Leaders and their Languages


Prime Minister and Vice-President of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and his wife Princess Haya bint al-Hussein attend the World Government Summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates February 11, 2018. REUTERS/Christopher Pike


Tanzania's President elect John Pombe Magufuli addresses members of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi Party (CCM) at the party's sub-head office on Lumumba road in Dar es Salaam, October 30, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Herman

That international relations require communication skills is a no-brainer. But which world leaders are using languages to make political alliances, and which are using them to make points?

Since coming to power, French President Emmanuel Macron has revealed a penchant for Franglais that has divided his countrymen.

Some citizens eye Macron’s wandering tongue with distaste, while others argue that Macron and his band of multilingual ministers stand the country in good stead in future EU negotiations.

But he’s not the only world leader to spark debate on the subject of administrative lingua francas.

Here we shine the spotlight on four heads of state and their complex politico-linguistic situations.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai

Sheikh Mohamed has long been marrying a bullish business agenda with a celebratory patriotic vision. In many ways these are complementary ambitions; in many ways it’s a tough balancing act. On one side there are English voices to listen to, on the other, Arabic.

Last month the UAE was ranked 21 out of 190 countries in Knight Frank’s “ease of doing business” report. The Sheikh’s excellent grasp of English language has certainly played a role here.

On the other hand, Sheikh Mohamed has not shied away from championing Arabic. He has created countless Arabic-language initiatives, like the Committee for Modernization of Arabic Language Teaching, and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Contemporary Arabic Language Dictionary. He is also a prolific poet and has several volumes of published Arabic verse.

While business is big in Dubai, the Sheikh reminds us, “the first priority is education, the second priority is education and the third priority is education.”

Moreover, while most of his speeches are conducted in Arabic, his Instagram photos are accompanied by bilingual captions. The Sheikh’s account is ranked one of the top 10 most popular world leaders’ accounts with 2.35 million followers.

And as the old saying goes: an Instagram speaks a thousand words.

Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada

As Prime Minister of one of the most linguistically angst-ridden countries in the world, Justin Trudeau was never going to have it easy. Indeed, he inherited family baggage: it was his father, Pierre Trudeau, who introduced the controversial Official Languages Act in 1969, which gave French and English equal status in the Government of Canada.

However, ever the diplomat, Trudeau had avoided treading on any eggshells. Until 2017 when he trod on a landmine. At a town hall meeting in Québec, Trudeau responded in French to a question asked in English.

The response was astounding. 14 complaints were lodged with the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée suggested Trudeau was “simply out of his depth” when it came to language and identity. The president of a Québécois Anglophone association demanded an apology from Trudeau.

After one month the whole affair had more or less blown over. Trudeau participated in a North American press conference alongside the US President, and that really put things in perspective for Canadians. “Trudeau flips elegantly between French and English, while Donald Trump struggles to read English words with more than two syllables,” joked one Twitter user.

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia

Although his rapport with dogs and horses is well known and well documented, Vladimir Putin is less famous for his wide-ranging skills in human communication. In fact, the Russian President is fluent in German and has a very good grasp of English.

That said, Putin is often reluctant to use English at prominent gatherings with native speaking counterparts.

There are many theories for this.

Some highlight the political implications of anglicizing the space of debate, pointing to the inevitable associations with capitalism and anti-Russian sentiment in general. Others suggest that Putin’s English language packs less of a punch than his mother tongue, and while fluent, he fails to find his authoritative voice.

With German however, this is not the case. Reportedly, Putin frequently opts to use the foreign language during his travels to German-speaking countries. During his first presidential visit to Berlin in 2001 he addressed crowds directly in their mother tongue.

The leader spent four years living in Dresden working for the Russian military intelligence, and presumably became well versed during that period.

It could also be argued that the German language is less symbolically threatening. However, this theory is not totally watertight: we should consider how German increasingly carries connotations of European Union dominance, which sit uncomfortably with those in the Kremlin.

Speculations aside, it certainly appears as if Putin’s love of exhibiting his power extends to his mastery of languages. One of his favorite party tricks is to correct misinformed translators at official summits, or even, in the case of one notable forum in St. Petersburg, to usurp their role altogether.

John Magufuli, President of Tanzania

The Tanzanian President’s name has become synonymous with the no-nonsense talk of anti-corruption. He has cracked down on locals who have fallen foul of the law, but his attentions have been also directed at foreign companies, particularly Australian, American, Canadian, and British firms.

Needless to say, notions of protectionism and anti-colonialism, as well as a seemingly personal anti-West crusade, have colored the President’s relationship with the English language.

Famously camera-shy, Magufuli has only given a handful of speeches since coming into power; an even smaller number of which he gave in English, despite the fact that English, along with Swahili, is one of Tanzania’s official languages.

This has alienated some of the non-native private sector operators. And indeed, Tanzania slipped five places to 137th in the World Bank’s Doing Business report ranking between 2017 and 2018.

The Right Honorable Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Patricia Scotland, told TBY in an interview that English speaking directly contributes to “the ‘Commonwealth Advantage,’ a name given to the benefit that results from similarities in language, law, and institutions when trade occurs between member countries.”

Furthermore, Commonwealth research shows a common language makes it 19% cheaper for member countries to trade. Tanzania has been a member of the Commonwealth of Nations since 1961.

However, considering that an estimated 90% of Tanzania’s population speaks Swahili, compared with just 15% that is adept in English, Swahili’s reach is much greater, making it by far the more inclusive of the two. In this context it is not so surprising that Magufuli, very much a man of the people, chooses to address crowds in the East African language.

Some say that with modern technological translation devices, subtitles, or traditional human professionals, it won’t matter whether you’re speaking Urdu or Greek.

But others maintain that it’s not what you say, but how you say it, and, more importantly, which language you choose to say it in, that speaks volumes about your real intent and purpose.

Macron, for one, will go down in history as the French President who said that democracy “est le systí¨me le plus bottom-up de la terre” (“the most bottom-up system in the world”). Our guess is that it’s not his sentiment, but rather his stunning Franglicisms, that will prove most memorable in years to come.