To mark the European Day of Languages we examine how political leaders speak – both at home and abroad.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, president of Russia
Native tongue: Renowned for his salty vocabulary, rather clipped delivery and uncompromising asides. Unafraid to employ earthy Russian street argot, he once threatened to wipe out Chechen rebels “in the shithouse”, and on another occasion – to press conference gasps and giggles – invited a journalist questioning Russia’s tactics in Chechnya to come to Moscow “to be circumcised” and join the rebels.
Language of diplomacy: Putin, a former KGB agent who spent five years in Dresden, is proud of his fluent German, said to have improved even further in recent years thanks to his friendship with former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Though comfortable conducting political discussions one-to-one in German, diplomatic protocol requires the Russian leader to revert to his native language when aides are in attendance to ensure they understand. Putin has also been studying English while president, but it is said that the judo black belt is still wrestling with our vowel sounds: he rarely speaks English in public, and never in a diplomatic setting. He did, however, woo the International Olympic Committee in heavily accented but convincing English when bidding for the winter Olympics in Sochi, and famously crooned the Fats Domino hit Blueberry Hill in English at a charity event.
Mark out of 10: 8
Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany
Native tongue: Nothing to see here. Merkel is from the old East Germany, but any mild provincial accent is less significant than her controlled, unflashy tone with its slightly extended vowels. Far from experimenting with Putin-style insults, the Christian Democrat leader’s worst linguistic gaffe was her much-mocked description of the internet as “neuland” – “uncharted territory” – in 2013.
Mark out of 10: 7
François Hollande, president of France
Native tongue: Hollande boasts the elegant, well-educated French that is to be expected of the product of France’s elite graduate schools. His complex personal life also suggests the language of seduction comes naturally, together with that of the ruthless public break-up: “I am making it known that I have put an end to my relationship with [first lady] Valérie Trierweiler,” Hollande told the media when his affair with an actress was exposed.
Language of diplomacy: Hollande speaks working English but with a pronounced accent: as he admits himself, “I speak English like a Frenchman”. However, it’s not all modest self-mockery: shortly before election to his current post, Hollande claimed he spoke English “more fluently than the former president” (it was true: Nicolas Sarkozy belongs to the Clouseau school of English pronunciation). Despite his abilities, Hollande also maintains that “A French president has to speak French” – it’s never a good idea to let those Anglo cultural imperialists get above themselves, after all. What’s more, English can subvert one’s best attempts at flattery: a congratulatory letter from Hollande to Obama on the latter’s election use the sign-off “friendly” – an unfortunately over-literal translation of the French “amicalement”.
Mark out of 10: 4
Native tongue: Old Etonian Cameron speaks fluent posh (though posh isn’t as posh as it used to be), while Ed Miliband has followed Tony Blair’s example and injected a touch of voter-wooing Estuary into his north London middle class tones. However, even the man-of-the-people glottal stops can’t disguise the Labour leader’s adenoidal delivery. Deputy PM Nick Clegg, a toff like Cameron but – despite his name – a foreign one, deploys a regionless middle class tone that at least has the benefit of sounding authentic.
Language of diplomacy: The Lib Dems may be preparing to haemorrhage seats at Westminster, but at least their leader is top of the language class. Clegg, whose mother is Dutch and wife Spanish, speaks five languages: Dutch, German, French and Spanish, as well as English. Unsurprisingly as the leader of a third (and shrinking) party, he milks his talents: he gave an interview in Dutch to Dutch TV ahead of the 2010 election, and can happily negotiate in German. Aides say he switches with ease between his languages, speaking by phone to wife Miriam in Spanish, a diplomat in German and then his mum in Dutch, all in the same car journey. The prime minister, in contrast, boasts O-level French, but gives no indications of ever using it (unlike Blair, who, having worked in a French bar as a student, was reasonably fluent). Miliband says everyone in the UK should speak English to boost cohesion: a good plan since he shows no signs of speaking anything else.
Mark out of 10: Clegg 10, Cameron and Miliband, 1