The latest language-related controversy to erupt here in good old Deutschland concerns newly-minted EU Commissioner Günther Öttinger and his language skills (or rather distinct lack thereof). A YouTube Video is doing the rounds, it shows clips of Öttinger explaining the importance of English as a business language alongside clips of his embarrassing real life English skills and it has had almost a million and a half hits so far! Have a look for yourself.
In my professional opinion this criticism is a little harsh. The problem is not the language – this talk was clearly professionally translated – it is in Öttinger’s inability to pronounce the language and create the kind of flow that would have made this speech comprehensible. Based on the odd line or two he improvised himself I’d guess his English is somewhere around the pre-intermediate level. During my time as a corporate language trainer I met many men and women like him, who had reached their 40s 50s or even 60s without having had either the opportunity or need to learn any English beyond the basics. In these cases my students had typically landed these international roles because they met all but the language criteria, and they usually tried to fill the remaining gap by getting one-to-one English lessons (as apparently Öttinger has). Unfortunately, progress in these cases is typically slow – people who did not gain communicative competency in their younger years in any language tend be slower learners when they try to pick up a language later on. And of course there are also time constraints – people in Öttinger’s situation have little time in the first place and typically cancel often. So what could he realistically have done to avoid this embarrassing situation?
Well for someone like him, who has little time and poor English skills I would have recommended the presentations plus service offered by Translabor. With this service I would not only have translated his presentation, I would have given him anything up to a day’s worth of post-translation coaching on how to correctly pronounce and phrase the speech. In that session difficult to pronounce words can be cut and replaced with simpler ones if necessary and if the whole structure is a problem then we can find something easier to manage. It can’t make up for many lost years of language learning but it can make someone sound a hell of a lot more professional and avoid unnecessary embarrassment!