Czech leaders and English: Does proficiency matter?

A display of broken English by a Slovak cabinet member casts our minds to Czech politicians' – highly varying – levels of English proficiency.

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas Published on 16.02.2024 12:20:00 (updated on 09.05.2024) Reading time: 3 minutes

Slovak Minister of Culture Martina Šimkovičová’s recent attendance at the UNESCO conference in Abu Dhabi stirred attention for her insights on cultural preservation and the quality of her English. 

In a video shared by the satirical website Zomri, Minister Šimkovičová is seen delivering her speech with noticeable struggles in pronunciation and a strong accent. The website’s post, “Looks like the UNESCO conference in Abu Dhabi went as expected,” sparked strong reactions, with hundreds of Slovaks sharing amused or embarrassed responses. 

This incident sheds light on the broader discourse surrounding politicians’ proficiency in English on the international stage – and begs the question of how Czech politicians stack up in the English language department.

Is it essential for Czech politicians to speak better English when working in the EU?

Yes 94 %
No 6 %
268 readers voted on this poll. Voting is open

In 2022, the year Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s government took office, an investigation by the Czech daily Hospodářské noviny (HN) found that several ministers of the new government were unable to speak English at a working level, raising concern about the politicians’ ability to carry out their roles during the Czech presidency of the Council of the EU, slated for July of that year.

Both coalitions forming the new government emphasized the importance of language skills in their electoral campaigns, perhaps in response to linguistic blunders made by the previous government’s leaders – for instance, ANO party Finance Minister Alena Schillerová's memorable encounter with a reporter in Brussels.

In the current government, the Czech media has criticized PM Fiala’s English. However, Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský consistently gets high marks for his fluency.

Among the Czech presidents, Petr Pavel, a former NATO general, displays a more confident command of the language than his predecessor Miloš Zeman.

But language proficiency knows no party lines it would seem: Former presidential candidate and prime minister and current ANO party leader Andrej Babiš is a self-proclaimed polyglot who once gave an interview on CNN Prima in French, English, and German.

In June, voters across EU countries, including the Czech Republic, will elect members of the European Parliament, deciding on 720 seats, including 21 for Czech members of European Parliament (MEPs). How important is it that those representatives can communicate in the lingua franca of the EU?

Political analysts and linguists agree that in a diplomatic context, using a non-native language is an asset, not a handicap – speaking English allows easier cross-border cooperation and negotiations.

According to The Guardian, all 764 MEPs must attend the monthly plenary sessions held by the European Parliament to debate legislative issues, with speaking time allocated based on the size of a political party. Then, the party puts forward the speaker of its choice, free to talk in any of the 24 official EU languages.

While the European Parliament says that its interpretation service enables members to speak their language, writing for Politico, Olav Oye argues that nuance and information are lost in interpretation. 

"English is by far the predominant language of the political game. Political players with good English skills, native or non-native speakers, have a clear advantage over the rest.”

In his 2022 book Diplomatic Skills, Johan Verbeke, former Belgian ambassador to the United Kingdom, the U.S., and the UN, draws on the linguistic lessons of his long diplomatic experience. 

“Speaking as a non-native,” he notes, “makes you think explicitly and more carefully about what you will say. You will be thinking faster than you speak…being less emotional, a non-native speaker’s decision-making will be generally more rational, more calculated.” 

He adds that English speakers also get points for trying as “appreciation accrues to people who make an effort and have the talent to speak a foreign language.” 

Some would argue, however, for the importance of preserving cultural diversity and linguistic heritage within the EU. Not all native languages have the same status, and solely using English risks marginalization. Linguistic diversity is also seen as a social and economic asset around the Bloc.

Case in point: Prominent lawmakers in Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia party, led by Fabio Rampelli and reportedly supported by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, are pushing a bill to penalize Italian officials using foreign words in official communications, emphasizing the societal impact of “Anglomania.”

Meanwhile, France is challenging English-only applications for EU positions, claiming unjust language-based inequality and potential violation of the EU's duty to preserve linguistic diversity.

Evidence suggests that when it comes to Czech politicians and English proficiency, the times may be changing.

HN recently hailed Minister of Transport Martin Kupka as “an inspiration for other government colleagues” struggling with English communication after Kupka revealed: "I am working on English," and confirmed his commitment to catching up through nighttime Skype lessons with a native British lecturer.

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