By John Fitzpatrick
A number of Brazilian readers from another site have taken me to task because I lamented the fact that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had boasted about his inability to speak English recently.
This occurred after he had addressed the G-7 group of industrialized nations at their summit meeting in France. On his return to Brazil, Lula claimed that although, like most ordinary Brazilians, he did not speak English this had not stopped him getting his message across.
Of course, not speaking English does not make Lula any less serious on the world stage than, say, Russia’s President Putin, but it puts him at a disadvantage.
Compare his ignorance-is-bliss approach to that of the former German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, who turned up at the UK Labour Party national conference in Blackpool about 20 years ago and, in beautiful, witty English, told delegates they were wrong in being hostile to the European Economic Community, as the European Union was then called.
Look how the former Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Nehanyahu, got his first steps on the road to power when his popularity among the influential American Jewish community soared thanks to his complete fluency in English .
Not only can Lula not speak directly to the most powerful English speaker in the world, US President George Bush, but he also cannot stand at the rostrum of the United Nations or any other international body and address the world directly.
Despite this, I was not criticizing Lula for being monolingual but for playing the populist card and behaving as though his lack of English somehow brought him closer to the people. In my view, Lula would be setting a good example to adults and children alike if he were to announce that he intended learning English.
No one expects him to become fluent but if he were, at least, able to make a speech in English it would improve his image abroad and, I am sure, at home. The less educated class was never impressed by ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s linguistic skills because they expected it from an intellectual but if Lula were to master English then the very people he claims to represent would consider it a tribute to them as well. They would be proud of him.
One example he should consider is that of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who started to learn English to try and improve his public image. Anyone who has ever heard Arafat speak knows that he still has a long, long way to go but, at least, he can speak and respond to questions in English.
In his case it must have been more difficult than it would be for Lula. Not only has Arafat spent most of his life on the run from Israeli bombs and bullets, not exactly conducive to quiet study, but since Arabic is his mother tongue he had to learn a new script as well.
My views did not win much support among many of the Brazilian readers and, as usual when I dare to criticize Brazil, I have been accused of being arrogant, dogmatic, opinionated, ignoring the fact that Portuguese is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world etc. Since www.gringoes.com is aimed at expatriates who are English speakers it would be interesting to hear some views and share readers experiences of other places.
John Fitzpatrick 2003
John Fitzpatrick writes on Brazilian politics and culture for sites, including infobrazil.com and brazzil.com, and magazines. He runs his own São Paulo-based company, Celtic Comunicaes, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org