Bad English Shaming.

Feargus O’Sullivan posts for CityLab about an interesting and apparently new phenomenon, summed up by the subhead: “English has become the lingua franca of Europe. And politicians who can’t speak it well are getting roundly mocked by their own citizens.”

Recently, the continent’s political masters have been slapped by a new form of satirical attack—Bad English Shaming. A viral-video sub-trend, Bad English Shaming sees public figures foolhardy enough to let their rusty English be recorded on camera getting mocked and mauled for their poor foreign language skills.

Exhibit A of the trend is an impassioned speech made this month by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Supposedly, it was in English. Renzi’s speech is so halting and garbled it’s hard to understand what he’s actually talking about, though it contains occasional lucid but surreal gems as, “He invent the telephone to speaking about in the theatre.” […] Then there were Madrid Mayor Ana Botella’s attempts last year to sell her city as a contender for the Summer Olympics. Mayor Botella’s stilted, halting English made her a national laughing stock, a reputation she has since solidified through gaffe after gaffe. […]

It has not been ever thus. Francois Mitterrand’s exceedingly brief 1986 foray into English at the Statue of Liberty’s centenary celebrations was widely taken as a badge of skillful statesmanship. […]

Clearly, something radical has changed. It probably isn’t the growth of American or British influence per se, as politically and culturally, these are either no greater than before or slightly on the wane. European English seems in fact to be uncoupling itself from native anglophones, a runaway caboose careering down its own track. The dominance of English as a European lingua franca is so total nowadays that it’s a basic tool for interaction even in countries where Brits and Americans rarely tread, as well as between Europe and other continents. […]

Once the number of English speakers tips over 50 percent, it seems people just get more demanding of each other. It’s one thing for a lazy Brit or American to complain about no one speaking English in Paris (though this happens less and less), but it’s quite another for a Dutch person to complain of the same thing—they’re already making an effort themselves. Like a bachelor’s degree and a clean criminal record, decent English is becoming one of those basic things you need to forge a career in Europe, political or not.

On the one hand, of course I deplore any form of language shaming, and am respectful of anyone trying to speak a foreign language in public. On the other hand, I enjoy seeing politicians shamed. It’s a quandary. (Thanks, Yoram!)


  1. During our past week vacationing in Hokkaido, we encountered many tourists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Most of them seemed to rely on English to communicate in Japan, although many of the tourist information employees seem to be Chinese students studying in Japan!

  2. Helsingin Sanomat ran a series on Finnish politicians’ English a few years ago –

    PS: “Tankeros Love” song they mention:

  3. I was at a dinner party years ago in which most of the people were ESL speakers from various places including South America, south Asia and the Middle East. For some reason the topic of discussion turned to English. The consensus among the second-language speakers was that they could understand ESL speakers better than native English speakers. However, they didn’t go so far as to shame native speakers (at least in my presence).

  4. David Marjanović says

    an interesting and apparently new phenomenon

    Well, for some definitions of “new”. Austrian and, IIRC, German politicians were mocked for their English pronunciation before the turn of the millennium. And the infamous Heinrich Lübke, president of West Germany in the 1960s, is best remembered for trying to tell the Queen “it’s about to start” by translating gleich geht es los literally: “equal goes it loose”.

  5. Trond Engen says

    I give you Ahti Karjalainen.

    I remember Karjalainen jokes from Norway in the seventies myself, partly but not only because my father had much social contact with Finnish colleagues, The one I remember best is where Karjalainen is receiving Henry Kissinger at the airport. Aware of his deficiencies he’s been instructed to keep it simple and rehearsed in what to say. When he meets the guest just off the plane’s ladder, he’ll say “Welcome to Finland”, and when they sit in the car he’ll say “How are you?”.

    It all seems to go OK. Mr Kissinger is greated with a “Vellkom too Finland” and they proceed to the car. The door slams behind them and the car drives off towards the city of Helsinki. Then Karjalainen turns to his guest, takes a good look at him and says “Hoo ar yoo?”

  6. David Marjanović says

    I give you Ahti Karjalainen.

    Much funnier. 🙂

  7. Well, for some definitions of “new”.

    My definition is roughly “in the last three decades.”

  8. Trond Engen says

    Apart from that I should say that I generally dislike the shaming of bad English from political figures. If they deserve to be shamed for their malevolence, incoherent ideas, faulty logic, lack of insight or whatever, heap it on, but not their bad English anymore than their tastes in music or their table manners. We don’t need even more slick, speech-trained, impeccably groomed broilers performing for the balcony. Lawyers, essentiallly. (Say I, from a country almost without lawyers in politics — a fortune I atttribute to the multi-seat election system.)

  9. David Levy, Israel’s Foreign Minister in the early nineties, was the butt of many such jokes. The punchline of this one requires a gloss, but it’s still pretty good:

    On his first visit to the White House, Levy is disappointed to find that the building’s facade is not the glittering white he had expected, but a faded off-white. At the end of his meeting with President Clinton, he tentatively brings this up. “Mr. President, do you know that your White House, it is not very white?”

    “Yes, I do,” says Clinton.

    Back in Israel, Levy tells his wife about his trip. “And Rachel, would you believe it? Their White House isn’t even really white, it’s just a dingy beige. Well, I told Clinton about it.”

    “That’s terrible, David! What did he say?”

    “He said they would whitewash.”

    (Yesaidu is Hebrew for “they will whitewash”.)

  10. David Levy jokes, unfortunately, had a racist undercurrent. As perhaps the first Sephardic politician of such prominence, he was a lightning rod for the Sephardic-are-stupid-and-uneducated stereotype.

    (That said, a joke in the same vein has him baffled by the chicken failing to cook in a new stove, which he’d set to ‘off’; of being the Hebrew for ‘chicken’ or ‘fowl’.)

    Shimon Peres’ English, while intelligible, is stilted and accented, and impresses me with uncalled-for confidence. Rabin’s English, scarcely better, somehow didn’t grate so much. Netanyahu, who I hate saying anything good about, studied in the US and is completely fluent.

  11. To be fair to Peres, you could say the same about his Hebrew.

  12. Trond Engen says

    I don’t remember David Levy’s English especially, so maybe his own speech used to be edited out out of mercy, but Peres and Rabin are great examples that “stilted and accented” are non-problems. I’ll even tout the idea that if the English of non-Anglophonian foreign leaders comes through as too good, it undermines their credibility with an international audience.

    But that’s foreign leaders. The stiltedness and accent of our own leaders still makes us cringe .I don’t think that’s because of the quality of their English, but because it piles on to our prejudice. Those of us who don’t like a politician pretend to feel bad on behalf of the nation for being represented by a nitwit, the rest of us feels let down by the politician for proving the other side right.

  13. Dutch politicians are claimed to have said stuff like “I fok horses” (‘breed’) – here is a typical compilation of such quotes, none of which looks genuine unfortunately.

  14. peter desmond says

    i think madrid mayor Ana Botella’s english is just fine. she read her script with understanding. it’s just that her accent was strong. i’ve heard worse on BBC.

  15. Someone on Linguist List told me that he had actually been there when a Dutch kid said Mij pa fok diere while introducing himself to an Afrikaans-speaking classroom. But of course some linguists are not above sacrificing a fact to an anecdote, at least outside their professional work.

  16. Could you explicate that for those of us whose Dutch/Afrikaans is shaky/nonexistent?

  17. “My dad breeds animals” understood as “My dad fucks animals”?

  18. In Afrikaans it means “My dad fucks animals”, while in Dutch it means “My dad maintenances fly jib”. Thank you, Google Translate. (Alternatively, with the merest tweak, Google can be made to understand it in Dutch as “…breeds animals”.)

  19. Just so.

  20. per incuriam says

    I think madrid mayor Ana Botella’s english is just fine. she read her script with understanding. it’s just that her accent was strong

    Not the worst perhaps but “just fine” would be stretching it. At the ensuing press conference she was an embarrassment, completely misunderstanding a straightforward question in English (having rashly declined to listen to the interpretation).

    Her “script”, by the way, seems to have been a crib sheet, which has been posted here together with an expert analysis.

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