English or my mother tongue at a multilingual conference?

Thanks to the globalised world we live in, there are more and more multilingual conferences. Sometimes due to a tight budget, English is used as a lingua franca and those speakers not able to deliver their speech in English magically disappear from the programme. Yet, more professional and international conferences include multilingualism in the package. Unfortunately, both non-native speakers and the native audience sometimes tend to underestimate this important asset benefiting them enormously. The result? Interpreters are not valued the way they should.

In fact, interpreters offer non-native speakers the possibility of delivering the speech in their mother tongue instead of using English as a lingua franca. Why is this so positive? I’ll get straight to the point: unless you studied many years in the UK or in the States, you will look significantly more professional and prepared in your mother tongue. Former German Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, once said: “In a foreign language I say what I can. In my own language I say what I want.”  Why do you think that Frau Merkel only speaks in German? Because she’s smart! If she spoke in English, she would indeed lose much of her negotiating power. Let’s see examples of the opposite case, with distinguished personalities speaking English as a foreign language.

Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister

Ana Botella, Mayor of Madrid, and her famous “relaxing cup of café con leche“. 

Francesco Rutelli, Italian politician

President Putin

Linguistically speaking (and without any implicit political criticism), do you think that was a savvy choice? Of course, I will agree with you that it depends on the situation. As always in life, it’s not all black or white. Yet, in general, I would answer with a big “NO”. The principle behind this answer is the same one existing on the EU multilingualism. If you think that, in order to cut costs among other reasons, all the politicians there should only express themselves in English (or, more precisely, BCE = Badly Spoken English), you’re not considering the democratic aspect hidden behind speaking your mother tongue. In this sense, interpreters’ job is to defend that linguistic right, not only from the speakers’ perspective but also and foremost from the EU citizens’.

Furthermore, you should bear in mind that a language includes a specific body language and is always connected to culture. If you speak an acceptable British English, accompanied with a typically Italian body-language and constant Italian cultural references the audience might not catch, what’s the point? Avoid being a complex and eye-catching hybrid on the stage. Be 100% made in Italy, if that’s the case, and let interpreters do the rest.

All the points made in this post are wonderfully summarised in the AIIC’s video below.

If you finally agree with me that it’s in your best interests to speak in your mother tongue, provided that you’re given this possibility thanks to an interpreting service, there is another fundamental issue you should consider. The post on this topic will be online right after the holidays. Don’t miss it!

Have a nice week!


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