Foreign Secretary opens Foreign Office language school

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The new language school will see a renewed focus on language as a diplomatic skill, helping British diplomats compete better globally.

The Foreign Secretary William Hague said:

I am grateful to all our guests for joining us for this very special occasion.

I want to particularly thank everyone who has played a part in designing and building this wonderful language school, and everyone who will teach here. Thousands of hours of work have gone into this project, and the final result is exceptional.

I have been looking forward to this moment for some time. It is a milestone in one of my personal objectives as Foreign Secretary, which is to build up the long term strength and effectiveness of the Foreign Office as an institution, and I am grateful to the senior leadership of the FCO for their support for this goal.

I regarded the decision of Ministers under the last government to close the Foreign Office’s language school, along with the closure of the library, as an act of supreme short-sightedness: hollowing out the Foreign Office to save relatively small sums of money. I announced in September 2011, almost exactly two years to the day today, that we would open a new language school.

Today, I am delighted to say that we have fulfilled this promise: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has its own language school once more.

Here in the heart of this historic building – one of the oldest and proudest Foreign Ministries in the world – our diplomats will study side-by-side with their peers, immersing themselves in the languages of the world before being deployed overseas to promote our country’s interests.

The ability to speak, read, listen and write in a foreign language is one of the fundamental skills of our diplomats. Without it they cannot get under the skin of a country and really understand its people.

They cannot develop the mutual warmth and rapport that comes from conversing in a common tongue. And they cannot speak as persuasively to local politicians, journalists and members of civil society on everything from migration to macroeconomics.

Diplomacy is the art of understanding different cultures, and using this understanding to predict and influence behaviour. Speaking the local language is the essential first step in this process. It is an important sign of our respect for other societies, and it increases their respect for us in return. It helps to gain access to influential people. It helps to understand why individuals and nations behave as they do. This is more important than ever in a world of many more centres of decision-making and influence, in which we have to work far harder to protect our interests as the United Kingdom.

Language skills enable our diplomats to travel widely in their countries and to talk to people from all walks of life - to the man on the street, not just the English-speaking elites. It makes them vastly more effective at communicating the viewpoint of the United Kingdom. And it is vital to understanding the political mood in different countries and to spotting trends or anticipating crises.

Facility with languages is a wonderful and rewarding talent in itself, but in the case of diplomacy it has a crucial practical impact.

It helps us, for example, to identify and influence individuals and groups playing a significant part in shaping events, such as in the context of the Arab Spring. Arabic is the fastest growing language on social media platforms globally, and we need good language skills to tap into this rich conversation and to put across the UK position.

Language skills are invaluable when trying to understand and predict the behaviour of countries that do not have transparent, democratic political systems, and where reliable information is harder to come but vitally important to British companies or to our security interests.

And it makes a huge difference when providing consular support to British families in difficulty overseas, sometimes in the most distressing of circumstances such as the death of relative, that our diplomats have the language skills to navigate complex bureaucracy and find answers quickly.

When the officials sent me briefing for today’s event, they took great care to anticipate every conceivable question which could arise, with admirable thoroughness. They must have been thinking of my wife Ffion when they included a sentence informing me that Welsh will not be taught here “as it is not a foreign language routinely used in diplomacy”. It is certainly not a foreign language, but it can be used in diplomacy. Lloyd George used Welsh at Versailles in 1919 to baffle eavesdroppers when reporting back to London on the negotiations. You never know when a language is going to come in handy…

With 40 classrooms we have space here to train up to 1,000 full and part-time language students over the course of 12 months, in up to 80 different languages from Arabic to Zulu. We will be offering 70,000 hours of teaching each year, not just for the men and women of the Foreign Office, but to those of other Government departments if they wish to take advantage of our services.

Students here will have access to 60 foreign language television channels, over 2,200 newspapers from around the world online, and a library of 4000 books in over 70 languages. This library is named after the late Tony Bishop, one of the finest linguists in the history of the Foreign Office who served our country for forty years as a superbly gifted Russian linguist and analyst. I am delighted that staff studying here will be reminded of his example and exceptional contribution to British diplomacy towards Russia during and after the Cold War, and I extend a warm welcome to members of his family joining us here today.

So we are also increasing the number of jobs overseas for which language skills are required in key parts of our overseas network. We’ve brought in a 20% increase in the number of posts for speakers of Latin American Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic, and a 40% increase in the number of Mandarin speakers. More skilled people speaking languages in our Embassy overseas means more effective diplomacy for the United Kingdom.

One final crucial advantage of having a language school is that our staff will be able to study together not scattered around London, and that even while they are on long language training they will remain part of the daily life of the Foreign Office. Here, they will be able to form the friendships and esprit de corps which is an essential part of any thriving institution, and link up with native speakers from other Embassies in London who we will invite to be part of a new language network.

So we have not simply replaced what was axed in 2007, we have designed and built something much better that will be a beacon of learning and excellence in languages for years to come. The language school is a microcosm of what our vision is for the Foreign Office as a whole: a centre of ideas, not an island of administration; not a cumbersome bureaucracy, but an agile organisation brimming with expertise; a vibrant point of creativity, innovation and expertise at the heart of a network of talented people spanning the globe; able to anticipate threats to our country and to spot opportunity for the British people. Investing in our skills and capabilities as an institution is an investment in long term British influence in the world. There can never be any substitute for a strong British Diplomatic Service that advances the interests of the United Kingdom. We can never rely on anyone else to do that for us.

That is why we are engaged in the biggest drive to enhance the diplomatic skills of the Foreign Office that the Department has ever seen. It includes a huge increase in training, of which this language school is just one part, and a greater emphasis on history and the retention and sharing of knowledge and expertise. We have moved the historians back into the heart of the Foreign Office, into the newly-restored old Home Office Library. I take advice from a group of retired senior Ambassadors, and we are attaching far greater importance to the work of the Foreign Office research analysts. We have also started a Foreign Office International Visitors Programme, bringing future leaders from around the world to the United Kingdom, forming relationships which support our future foreign policy in that country. We have done all this and more over the last three years, on a smaller Foreign Office budget, because we have worked out how to make the taxpayer’s money go much further. It is why we will also succeed in opening up to 20 new British diplomatic posts overseas by 2015.

We want to go further still.

So the next stage of the strengthening of the Foreign Office will be the establishment of a new Diplomatic Academy – the first in the organisation’s history – so that we continuously invest in the cutting-edge skills and knowledge of our diplomats at all stages of their careers. It will be an integral part of the FCO. It will recognise, support, and build the unique tradecraft of international diplomacy in the contemporary world, and equip our people to be beyond doubt the best diplomatic service in the world, with the strongest skills in negotiation, analysis, policy-making and economic and commercial diplomacy. This will be an Academy run by and for current members of staff, embodying real expertise, drawing on the best academics and other experts, supported by a culture where learning is shared and our leaders invest in the next generation of our people.

This combination of an expanded diplomatic network and a stronger culture of learning and expertise amounts to a quiet revolution at the Foreign Office over the last three years. It is a Foreign Office back at the heart of Government, expanding overseas, investing in its capabilities, building links with emerging powers, and creating the strongest possible foundation for Britain’s long term security, prosperity and influence.

So I hope you will all join me in celebrating the opening of this language centre, not only for the great addition it is to the Department and the great positive change it will bring to how we study and use languages, but for all that it says about a Foreign Office that is on the advance, protecting Britain’s national interest, helping to keep our country safe, promoting our values around the world and doing so with a professionalism and skill which is the envy of much of the world. This centre will help us to do so.

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