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Bad Language Shaming: When Public Figures Get Public Speaking Wrong

By Executive Office of the President of the United States ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Executive Office of the President of the United States ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is a truth universally acknowledged that behind every well-meaning political figure attempting to extend an olive branch and speak English to the wider public is a nation of their own people ready to mock and smite their every badly-pronounced word and poorly-executed grammatical expression (Jane Austen, we apologise…).

Imagine for a second, if you will, an important speech you have to give to an international crowd, in a language other than your own. Think about the sweaty palms, nervous twitches, and countless repetitions of your ‘horror’ words – you know, the ones you know you know but somehow always fail you when you actually use them. Now imagine that same speech is going to be televised, potentially worldwide, with keyboard vultures poised, claws curled, ready to pounce on your every word and tear it to shreds.

And that’s just the content of your speech.

Standing, arms folded, or slumping as all good couch politicians do, are countless people – with your own fair tongue, no less – waiting to mock you. And mock you they will, for every tiny detail that the native speakers will on the whole either dismiss or smile at you fondly for, for at least making the effort. Not the keyboard vultures though. They’re already vying for your blood.

The Importance of English in Business

Since the world seems determined to do most of its business in English, speaking English as a second language has become a key skill for many entrepreneurs the world over. With the current economic crisis seeing a vast increase in the number of applicants per jobs, the level of the candidate’s English is a very effective method of whittling down the selection process. Politicians are certainly not immune to such scrutiny, as this European Voice article demonstrates.

Native English speakers on the whole are generally impressed with non-native speakers’ efforts, and so when we hear the hilarity with which some speeches are received, we are often perplexed as to what is quite so funny. Often, but not always. There are some truly beautiful errors out there if you care to look.

Accidental YouTube Stars

Some delightful examples of politicians becoming stand-up comedians without even trying are:

  • Ana Botella, Mayor of Madrid, inviting us all for a relaxing cup of coffee.

  • Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister, for, well, we’re not entirely sure what he was saying either.
  • Crin Antonescu, Romania’s temporary president in 2012, showing us that being a public speaker is not just about confidence, it is the actual ability to use words.
  • Villy Søvndal, former Danish foreign minister, who actually is doing a reasonable job but not according to his fellow Danes.

With such critical analysis over every word and the risk of meanings being lost in translation, it is easy to see why public figures such as Angela Merkel choose to speak in their native tongue when addressing English listeners, despite being able to communicate in the language herself.

Making a Mockery of Other Languages

Such criticism isn’t just restricted to English either. Perhaps we all like to mock our leaders attempting to do something they’re not good at because it restores a little power to us. Such was the case during the recent Fallas opening ceremony in Valencia. Rita Barberá Nolla, mayor of Valencia for over 30 years, gave a ‘rousing’ speech welcoming in the festivities in such poor Valenciano that the locals made a mockery of her into their morning café con leche and afternoon merienda.

Over To You

Let’s face it. Public speaking in a foreign language is an accident waiting to happen, a gamble that either pays off or makes you a viral figure of fun. We can’t all be JFK giving his "I am a Berliner" speech, now can we?

But, speeches must be made, presentations must be presented, and if you want to take away your stage fright by becoming more familiar with your chosen foreign language, look no further than here. We offer group and one-on-one classes to individuals and groups in your area – contact us to find the perfect class for you.