Britain Asserts Its Culture With a Language Lesson

Before taking on the EU presidency Jan. 1, British diplomats told to use English only as a way to help define the national character.

The British, notorious for their reluctance to attempt other people's tongues, are preparing to give their European Union (EU) partners a six-month language lesson.

With less than a month to go before Britain takes on the rotating EU presidency Jan. 1, ministers and officials in Prime Minister Tony Blair's government have been ordered to conduct all diplomatic transactions in English.

There have been famous cases of statesmen getting into trouble by venturing into unfamiliar linguistic territory.

When President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963 he declared, "Ich bin ein Berliner!" In translation, he told the German audience he was a jelly doughnut.

A British Foreign Office directive, distributed to government departments, also recalls serious diplomatic blunders when negotiators thought they understood French, German, or other languages, but in fact did not. One common error among British negotiators has been confusion over the French word pretendre, which doesn't mean pretend, but assert or maintain.

English and French are both the EU's main working languages, but there is a huge linguistic rivalry between the two nations. When France has held the six-month EU presidency, it almost always insisted on the use of French for duties such as chairing ministerial meetings. Blair officials say British negotiators will return the compliment by using English.

AGRICULTURE Minister Jack Cunningham, who will chair meetings on such complex topics as the ban on British beef and amendments to the EU's common agriculture policy, has spent many hours trying to come to grips with French.

He says that in day-to-day EU business it is impossible to achieve much using English alone. "It is essential to speak French if you want to communicate in Europe," Mr. Cunningham says. "Having to work through an interpreter slows things down."

In fact, interpreters are present at all formal EU meetings, and the Foreign Office directive points out that it makes sense for a negotiator to speak his or her own language and allow it to be interpreted. On the other hand, much EU business is transacted informally in corridors, restaurants, and cafes, where interpreters, even if they were available, would get in the way.

There may be more, however, to London's English-only edict than simply a desire to avoid diplomatic gaffes.

Mr. Blair is using all available opportunities to promote the "Britishness" of Britain in what analysts see as an attempt to redefine the national character.

Last month, Blair hosted a summit with France's President Jacques Chirac at the ultramodern Canary Wharf tower in London's Docklands. The room was specially furnished by renowned British designer Sir Terence Conran, and the lunch menu was described by the chef as "the best of British."

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