The Putin interview I mentioned a couple of days back reminded me that when I spent quite a long time in Spain a decade ago, I could read Spanish quite easily, and also write it, and I could speak Spanish quite well, but I could never understand fluent spoken Spanish. I could only understand it when it was spoken very slowly.
Mi amiga in Spain always spoke to me in English, in which she was fluent. But she would throw in a bit of Spanish now and then, as when, at the end of a game of cards, she once enunciated very slowly, “Yo gano. Tú pierdes.” I win. You lose.
So, on reflection, listening to his English interviewers speaking to him slowly in English, I think that Putin’s understanding of spoken English was like my understanding of spoken Spanish: he only understands if it’s spoken slowly. And if it was spoken slowly, the interpreters speaking to him on an earphone might well have been able to translate it word for word as it was spoken.
And Putin can also speak a bit of English. A few years ago I saw him speaking English rather haltingly. It seems that Stalin was similar:
…there’s also an anecdote from F D Roosevelt’s son that he met Stalin in 1946, after the war, and noticed that Stalin seemed to be reacting to things people said to him in English before his translator had put them into Russian. He asked Stalin about this, and Stalin’s reply was to laugh, and say in very strongly accented English “You’ve caught me out, have you?”. According to Roosevelt, Stalin admitted he could understand English but only speak ‘a little’. The implication was that he used this to his advantage in meetings: he could get the gist of what the British or Americans were saying, but waiting for his translator to translate it properly gave him some extra time to consider what his answer should be.
All of which means that when Donald Trump meets Putin, they can probably talk to each other without interpreters, just so long as Trump talks very slowly in English, and listens very carefully when Putin replies in English.
In this respect, Donald Trump has a tremendous asset in his wife Melania:
She’s fluent in 5 languages
Though she may not have experience in public service, Melania Trump is prepped to help her husband out on the diplomatic front: in addition to her native Slovenian, Trump speaks four other languages: English, French, Serbian and German.
But also, according to the Express:
Besides his native Russian language and English, Putin also speaks German.
He worked for the Soviet security services in Dresden in East Germany during the 1980s and used German on a daily basis.
When he travels to German-speaking countries he often uses it in official circumstances.
Since Slovenian is said to be similar to Russian, Melania Trump and Vladimir Putin may well be able to talk to each other using their native languages.
Donald Trump himself only speaks English, it seems. But he has a multilingual family. Ivanka Trump’s daughter, Arabella, even speaks Mandarin. Barron Trump can speak his mother’s Slovenian. So the Trump household is very likely a babble of different languages, all being spoken as once.
It might seem that people will always understand each other best if they all speak the same language. But this isn’t always true. I once spent a whole afternoon talking at complete cross-purposes to an American, because when I said that joules – units of energy – were highly valuable, he thought I meant that jewels – precious stones – were highly valuable.
The ability to express ideas in multiple languages may actually help prevent this sort of misunderstanding arising. While words like joules (like amps and volts and ohms) are in wide international usage, words like jewels are not. In French a jewel is a bijou, and in Spanish it’s a joya. and in Greek a kósmima, and so on.
One wonders how many wars start simply because people misunderstand each other.