Language is not just a series of words. Language is a vehicle and catalyst for the creation of dialogue between diverse communities and an invaluable cornerstone of peacebuilding. As the human rights champion and Noble Peace Prize recipient, Nelson Mandela, summed it up, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
In the aftermath of a global pandemic as well as new and ongoing wars, political leaders and diplomats around the world are under increased scrutiny and pressure. Besides fostering understanding, being multilingual is simply good practice for anyone in the international diplomatic sphere.
With the US as a global leader, one would think its presidents would have some sort of international inclination, yet only 20 out of 46 (43%) US presidents spoke a second language.
Both former US President, Donald Trump, and the current sitting President, Joe Biden, are monolingual, as is the President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, China’s Xi Jinping, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.
Today, some of the most well-known leaders of English-speaking countries – the United States, Australia, and New Zealand – are monolingual, even though Jacinda Ardern, from New Zealand, apparently wishes she had learned Maori and has promised to raise her daughter speaking the indigenous language.
Some (in)famous monolingual world leaders
1. Scott Morrison (Australia): English
2. Alberto Fernandez (Argentina): Spanish
3. Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil): Brazilian Portuguese
4. Xi Jinping (China): Mandarin
5. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Egypt): Arabic
6. Yoshihide Suga (Japan): Japanese
7. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Mexico): Spanish
8. Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand): English
9. Joe Biden (USA): English
At NaTakallam, language doesn’t stop at syntax. It opens doors to new cultures, builds empathy, and fosters intercultural understanding. Multilingualism can provide an avenue for effective communication, conflict prevention and diplomacy, helping avoid misunderstandings, and perhaps even prevent wars and conflict from escalating.
Multilingual world leaders are of course not without fault, but let’s take a look at the panoply today:
Some famous multilingual world leaders
1. Vahagn Khachaturyan (Armenia): Armenian, Russian, and English
2. Sahle Work-Zewde (Ethiopia): Amharic, French, and English
3. Ursula von der Leyen (President of the European Commission): German, French, and English
4. Emmanuel Macron (France): French, English, and German
5. Angela Merkel (Germany): German, English, and Russian
6. Salome Zourabichvili (Georgia): Georgian, French, English, and Italian
7. Giuseppe Conte (Italy): Italian and English
8. King Abdullah II (Jordan): Arabic and English
9. Vladimir Putin (Russia): Russian, German, and a little English (we specify – a little…)
10. Pedro Sanchez (Spain): Spanish, English, and French
11. Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa): English, Afrikaans, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Ndebele, Isizulu, Setswana, Sepedi, and IsiXhosa (very impressive!)
12. Nelson Mandela (South Africa): English, Afrikaans, and IsiXhosa
13. Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Ukraine): Ukrainian, Russian, and English
14. King Charles III (UK): English, French, German, and Welsh
15. Boris Johnson (UK): English, Latin, French, Italian (we were surprised too!)
16. Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam): Vietnamese, French, English, Russian, Cantonese, and Mandarin (wow!)
Studies have shown that learning a foreign language directly correlates to the learner’s ability to empathize with and enhance understanding towards the speakers of that language and subsequently, their culture. Multilingualism fosters cross-cultural connection to the benefit of everyone involved. Language learner Katie Santamaria, emphasizes that, “Understanding each other’s intricacies [..] is an opportunity that shouldn’t go to waste.”
In an increasingly divided world, cultural understanding and shared respect can destroy the walls our world leaders try (and fail at) building.
Trump’s clearly (not) fantastic Spanish skills are another worthwhile case study in the potential benefits of multilingualism to the end of peace and more empathetic leadership… 🙂
We wonder… how might US and global policies change if world leaders were required to be culturally and linguistically competent in a foreign language?
Whatever languages you speak (or are looking to start studying), the role of language – as a means of communication and as an expression of identity – is a vital consideration for any serious discussion of peace and security.
In honor of World Peace Day, and beyond, walk the talk and talk the walk, in multiple languages with NaTakallam.
Yalla, vamos, on y va! What are you waiting for? Choose from Arabic, Armenian, English, French, Kurdish, Persian, Spanish, Ukrainian or Russian… and learn a language, the NaTakallam way!