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[Op-Ed] English Ineptness of Diplomats

Posted September. 24, 2009 08:33,   


Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell once expressed anger while in office, pledging never to meet again with Korea’s foreign minister. Powell could not converse with the Korean minister, who kept reading prepared memos. The minister was incapable of communicating in English despite being a career diplomat for more than 40 years. He responded to the criticism by claiming he prepared written speeches to more clearly communicate his message, but this episode remains a “notable incident” stemming from the poor English of Korean diplomats.

The Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry in Seoul conducted the English proficiency tests “TOP” for oral English and “TWP” for written skills in this year’s first half. In the tests, 10 diplomats received the lowest level of five, while one received a failing grade. In all, 19.6 percent of the test takers failed to score level four, or a level “deemed enough for conducting diplomatic work seamlessly.” In a TEPS test conducted on officials of Grade 5 or lower, 36 of 80 test takers got level five or failure. The ministry set the English skills requirement for its staff at 800 to 899 points, a level higher than that of other ministries. Nevertheless, it is disappointing to hear that a considerable number of diplomats received failing scores in English proficiency tests.

A foreign language is to a diplomat what a rifle is to a soldier. This era is an era when people who are highly proficient in foreign languages work in every corner of society, including the business community. Hence, it is a matter of national competitiveness if career diplomats cannot efficiently communicate in foreign languages, especially the global tongue of English. The deficiency in skills is even worse for other foreign languages. Less than a fifth of diplomats at the Korean Embassy in Beijing can speak and write Chinese enough to conduct assignments. China tends to especially emphasize the importance of personal relations, but Korean diplomats there do not have the necessary language skills to build personal networks.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks English, but Americans are apparently unhappy over his proficiency in the language. Rumors say American TV networks have declined to interview him because his English is not proficient enough for Americans to understand. High proficiency in English is truly a tough challenge for Koreans, who use English as second language. As such, diplomats highly proficient in English look all the more outstanding. If U.S. Ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens could not speak Korean, the Korean people’s affection for her would not be as strong as it is now.

Editorial Writer Bhang Hyeong-nam (hnbhang@donga.com)