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American diplomats study world languages
April 20, 2022


By Amirah Ismail

Which languages do you speak? American diplomats study many of them.

American diplomats reflect the diversity of the United States and the world. In their positions overseas, they make a special effort to connect directly with people by studying foreign languages.

Some diplomats grow up speaking multiple languages and others learn them from their jobs.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken lived in Paris as a child and speaks French fluently. As America’s chief diplomat, he delivers remarks entirely in French for French audiences, as he did in a recent interview with France 24. In French, Blinken discussed U.S. leadership in the global fight against COVID-19 and U.S. solidarity with Ukraine.

Some American diplomats know multiple languages because of their families’ diverse backgrounds. Some are immigrants to America or born to immigrant parents and raised in the United States. Some of them speak one language at home and switch to English at school and work.

Any U.S. citizen can become a U.S. diplomat. Knowing foreign languages at the start of a diplomatic career is an advantage, but not a requirement. The U.S. State Department has a special institute to train U.S. diplomats to speak foreign languages.

The Foreign Service Institute offers instruction in more than 65 languages. Diplomats study for several months to several years to prepare for assignments at U.S. embassies around the world. All instructors are native-level speakers of the languages they teach, ensuring U.S. diplomats learn from and practice with authentic voices.

After months of language immersion and exams, U.S. diplomats graduate from the institute and begin work abroad. Using their new language skills, they explain U.S. policy on TV and radio. They discuss bilateral cooperation with government officials, manage exchange programs and interview visa applicants. They also make new friends and memories.

In Algiers, Algeria, public diplomacy officers at the U.S. Embassy are proficient in the Algerian dialect of Arabic. They’ve amassed a huge following on Facebook and Instagram by posting impromptu videos in Arabic that are both informative and entertaining.At a reception hosted by the Embassy of Bangladesh in Washington, American diplomats heading to Dhaka presented a poem in Bangla. They borrowed traditional clothing from their Bangla instructor to wear for the occasion. The Bangladeshis in the audience gave the diplomats a standing ovation at the end.

In Riga, Latvia, American diplomats speak to audiences in Latvian. They stand out for their unique language skills among the foreign diplomatic corps and receive praise from Latvians.

In Vietnam, a former U.S. ambassador filmed a music video with a famous local rapper. They celebrated the Lunar New Year and rapped together in English and Vietnamese.

In Yerevan, Armenia, three American women at the U.S. Embassy celebrated International Mother Language Day by reciting a popular poem in Armenian, and each wore a color of the Armenian flag.

In Kinshasa, the U.S. ambassador interacts directly in French with people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He frequently expresses appreciation for local culture and shares insights from his workday on Twitter. His account is one of the most popular across the country.

Every day these American diplomats and thousands more build friendships and bridges between nations through direct communication.

They might make a few grammar mistakes along the way, but in true American spirit they work hard and keep trying.