Russian Federation President Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin possesses some amazing language skills for the leader of a world power. In this video of a town-hall style discussion, he jumps in on the interpreter and does it himself.
We all know he spent a good portion of his career in Germany, which explains his very strong German skills.
But let’s think of it this way. When Mark Zuckerberg addressed a Chinese university audience in Mandarin in 2014, the audience literally responded with Oos and Ahs.
(I was disappointed that President Obama spoke so little Bahasa Indonesia after living there as a boy. He got Zuckerberg-style applause.)
Mr. Putin also gives speeches in English, but I don’t hear anyone Oo or Ah.
Why this contrast? Because Americans don’t learn foreign languages to a professional level. A Russian leader is trilingual, and gets modest applause. An internationally-renowned American CEO speaks modest Mandarin and receives great accolades.
Now we have a president who has shown no interest in foreign languages, for himself or for anyone else.
Mr. Putin possesses a clear advantage over President-Elect Trump. When one knows foreign languages, one has insight into other peoples, countries, and cultures.
Who needs this sort of insight more than a powerful world leader?
Americans are closed-minded. Because languages come to our country to die, because we compulsively cut our ties with the Old Country, we lose our greatest asset in foreign relations: our immigrants’ languages, religions, and cultures.
We have millions of immigrants and citizens who know Mexico intimately. They know the language, the history, the key individuals, and the power dynamics, and they spend their free time following the news day-to-day in Mexico. Unfortunately, most do not work for US Intelligence or the State Department; they work in kitchens and on roofs because they are not “educated,” or they work in corporate jobs where no one knows or values the knowledge they bring to work every day.
A kid of European ancestry born in the US goes to college and studies Latin American history for four years, can’t hold a candle to the knowledge of these people among us who live a life saturated in Mexican news and Spanish language. Indeed, the kid likely couldn’t keep up holding a basic conversation Spanish with them.
But who will get the job directing policy? directing Latin American business?
Mr. Putin was a student of German language and culture for a long time. He can pivot between German and Russian points of view easily in making decisions. Moreover, he can’t help but know about American culture and politics through his rudimentary English and the penetration of American influence in Russia.
Mr. Trump, on the other hand, never learned another language. While he made deals outside of the US, his life and work have always been firmly based in the US. His negotiations have all likely been in English. He is typical of Americans in general, and American business people more specifically. Could you imagine him giving a major speech about the US in Russian?
(I have seen descriptions of his wife, Melania, that say that she speaks five languages: her native Slovenian, and Serbo-Croatian, as well as Italian, French, German, and English. I haven’t seen demonstration of her proficiency-level in these, however. People only mock her accent in English, which is clearly not nice.)
Because Mr. Putin has spent decades plugged into day-to-day culture of the West, from a western point of view, he will understand the American mentality, giving him special insight as he makes his decisions. Trump, however, does not possess any insight into the Russians—typical American myopia. (Remember when Former-President George W. Bush saw Putin’s soul?)
When we Americans finally value the great connections our people have to every country in the world, we will be able to flourish in foreign relations. People more worthy of working on a global platform will move into key positions.
How do we place more value on multilingual and international knowledge? How do we get them to make big decisions for our country? Or is this just a bad idea?
By White House photo by Eric Draper – whitehouse.gov, President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Public Domain, Link