“For (the next) five years, I must accept to have a president (who speaks) slipshod English,” wrote music composer Tya Subiakto early this week on her Twitter account, venting her disappointment over Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s winning in the Indonesian presidential election. The message is clear: Oh Indonesia, we finally have a president who doesn’t speak good English!
Few months back, TvOne – known for its support to Jokowi’s rival Prabowo Subianto – made a report comparing the two candidates’ English skill. Citing that Indonesia cannot detach itself from the international scene, such as the G21, the ASEAN Summit and the Non-Aligned Movement, the newscaster said, “for this reason, English proficiency has somewhat become a requirement for Indonesia’s future president.” The report went on showing clips of Jokowi speaking English in his thick Javanese accent, and with some errors – far from Prabowo, who spoke English quite fluently.
All this tickled me. I guess both Tya and TvOne haven’t ever heard or read about some famous world’s leaders whose English is far from perfect. I used to read an article on former French President Nicolas Sarkozy who speaks very bad English, and I asked about this to my French friends. This had later stirred some discussion among my other foreigner friends, who shared stories on their own leaders. But wait… don’t quickly believe in them (or me). Find your own way to Google and Youtube to confirm your doubts.
The fact is, Sarkozy failed from his higher education at SciencesPo – a prestigious institution for many France’s political elites, due to his inadequate English. Once in 2010, Sarkozy apologized to Hillary Clinton for the bad weather, saying, “sorry for the time”, in which he translated le temps (which means weather in this context) simply into “time”. A report by FranceTV titled “Do you speak English mister President?” cited political communication specialist Christian Delporte as saying, “look at Nicolas Sarkozy. He does not speak English but that did not stop him from taking part in the political landscape abroad.” His successor François Hollande is no different. Once, he even made a mistake in his official letter to Obama, ending his message with the word “friendly” – something he mistranslated from the French expression “amicalement”.
Let’s now move on to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Have you seen him speaking English? If you wish to see it now, be careful with your migraine. In most of media interviews in English, he answered in Russian. No big deal! Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi are two of a kind. They speak poor English, and you can prove it yourself on Youtube.
Then, who doesn’t know German Chancellor Angela Merkel? Unless she could read some prepared texts, she rarely speaks English in public, and just like Putin, she prefers to answer English interviews in German. She once even confidently addressed to the U.S. Congress in German. During my visit to Germany in 2005, where former German chancellor Helmut Kohl spoke in front of hundreds of international students, it was obvious that none of us understood his German-English speech. My German coach told me: “Sorry, he actually doesn’t speak English!”
If you want to see more famous names in my list, here we go: Chinese President Xi Jinping, Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy, and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe –all of them avoid speaking in English, and rely on their interpreters in official occasions. Rajoy even admitted in a TV show: “No, I don’t speak English.”
So, we have leaders from Spain, Japan, China, Germany, Italy, Russia and France who are not perfect in English. And that doesn’t make them or their countries appear less powerful in the international scene. Look at Indian PM Narendra Modi who defends his national language by choosing Hindi for diplomatic talks, despite his ability in English. So, why should we feel ashamed of having Jokowi who speaks English with his thick Javanese accent? All those leaders do have their own accents too. They’re not native English, anyway. Tya and all skeptics should remember one thing: even former president Soeharto had relied on his interpreter for over 30 years. In any case, just like Christian Delporte said, “Leaders are surrounded by advisers who are obliged to master this language (English) to sign treaties, negotiate...” So, don’t worry, just like all those powerful leaders above, Jokowi should be just fine.
Paris, 25 July 2014