Narendra Modi may join the list of world leaders who don’t want to speak English


India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes his oath at the presidential palace in New Delhi on May 26, 2014. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

While the French may loathe to admit it, English has long been the accepted language of global diplomacy. However, if a new report in Indian Express is to be believed, India's new prime minister has decided he will speak Hindi when meeting with global leaders, even if they are fluent in English.

What's surprising about this is that Modi himself appears to speak good English. When Modi spoke to the Global Meet of Emerging Market's Forum last year, he surprised attendees with his clear, fluent English:

So, while Modi can speak perfectly good English, his decision appears to be based on political reasoning (we'll get to that in a bit).

It's easy as an English speaker to dismiss Modi's reported as an unnecessary difficulty, but his supporters could well point to numerous other countries where leaders will only speak English through a translator. In most cases, this is simply because they cannot speak it well or at all: Chinese President Xi Jinping rarely speaks English as he is reportedly far from fluent, for example (Li Keqiang, Chinese Premier, is said to be fluent). Other world leaders such as Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Japan's Shinzo Abe also avoid English due to language issues.

For other world leaders who avoid the English language, however, it seems to be less a matter of skill and more of a reasoned decision. In an interview with Slate.fr, French President Francois Hollande has bragged that he can speak far better English than his predecessor Nicholas Sarkozy, but, perhaps remembering the days of French as lingua franca, he added that "a French president has to speak French!" Footage of Hollande speaking English exists online:

Angela Merkel is also known to rarely speak English, and once addressed the U.S. Congress in German. However,  this year she did address British Parliament in imperfect but perfectly understandable English:

Meanwhile, former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle once refused to answer a question asked by a BBC reporter because it was in English, despite the fact he speaks good English:

Vladimir Putin is fluent in German and is known to often converse with Merkel, who can also speak Russian. Putin has only been learning English a few years, and occasionally brings it out when he wants to make a dramatic point, such as in this interview with CNN:

It's understandable that world leaders may not want to speak a foreign language they are not completely familiar with, of course: Their words are important and they don't want to be misunderstood. However, if Modi uses a translator when he meets President Barack Obama in September, it may be as a result of domestic concerns rather than a fear of confusion.

Hindi is considered an official language of India, but the country is incredibly linguistically diverse, and English is fairly common, though perhaps not as widespread as you might expect: By some estimates, just 5 percent of the country might be considered fluent.

And in a country with such linguistic diversity, language can end up political. In particular, there's a big snobbery surrounding English-medium schooling in India which some argue creates a big divide between English-speakers and non-English speakers in India – the magazine Outlook called it the "English Speaking Curse." Modi, from a humble background, did not attend such a school, and while he appears to have good conversational English, the Hindu nationalist may feel little in common with India's English-speaking, secular elite. Like many, he may not be able to shake the sense of lingering colonialism when speaking the language (Mohandas Gandhi once said that "to give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them.”)

Some American politicians can perhaps sympathize. In the 2004 campaign, John Kerry's French language abilities drew some scorn and he appears to have shown some reticence to use them since. Last year, while speaking in French with the French foreign minister, Kerry ended his comments with: "And now I will speak in English, because otherwise I would not be allowed to return back home."

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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