OPINION
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Eminent men

It is impossible to be a great writer without imbibing the tradition both of one's own nation and that of the world at large as well

 When the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson visited Harvard he was received by the rector, who asked about the truth of what he had heard, that his guest spoke 14 languages. "Yes, it's true," said Jakobson. "But I speak them all in Russian."

I often fall back on this anecdote when I have to speak in public any of the three foreign languages I can more or less limp along in. You needn't know another language well in order to speak it. Indeed you never finish learning a language, even your own mother tongue. But you do need to speak other languages - among other reasons, because they are the key to knowledge. Hence the gracelessness of the Spaniard's traditional, recalcitrant monolingualism.

José Ortega y Gasset wrote that eminent men are disinclined to speak foreign languages, and he was right. The first requisite for speaking a foreign language is not to fear making a fool of yourself in public. And an eminent man must never make a fool of himself - he will be the object of enough ridicule on his equestrian statue after he is dead. Without a certain indifference to ridicule it is impossible to learn another language well - hence the well-known fact that it is best learned in the relaxed ambience of bed, with a lover of the other language. Am I insinuating that we live in a land of eminent men? Not at all. If so, I would have to go into exile.

However, there exist professions in which monolingualism is deadlier than in others. To go no further, a writer who only reads his own language can hardly hope to be a great writer. Not only because languages widen our world and variegate it, but because it is impossible to be a great writer without imbibing the tradition both of one's own nation and that of the world at large as well. Translations help, but are not enough. Remember the writer of whom Stephen Dedalus said "he is so bad that he even reads translations."

I was always intrigued by the face of cheerful perplexity that Mariano Rajoy always wears at meetings of international leaders

Something like this applies to politicians. I was always intrigued by the face of cheerful perplexity that Mariano Rajoy always wears at meetings of international leaders, and by the fact that he was the only one who looked straight at the camera - while the rest looked at each other with more or less normal faces - until the nickel dropped, and I understood that he wears this face because he doesn't catch anything of what is being said around him. The others speak English, but he doesn't.

And can you be a real politician nowadays in Europe, without knowing a word of English, and being thus unable to establish any real immediate, spontaneous communication with your interlocutors?

Of course this is not exclusive to Rajoy. All recent Spanish prime ministers have been like this. Súarez put together a democracy in the provincial accents of Ávila. Gónzalez spoke pretty good French, polished in Louvain, though we seldom heard him speak it. Then Aznar, Zapatero and Rajoy all know a good deal of French, and can speak it with varying success. Aznar has the merit of having tried to learn English - though his English is barely comprehensible, and so far all it seems to have accomplished is to contaminate his usage of Castilian.

And I repeat: is it possible to be a relevant politician in Europe today without knowing English? How many European presidents don't know English? Among other things, politics is the art of persuasion, and how is Rajoy going to persuade Merkel that he is a serious, reliable man, and not a charlatan who is trying to sell his defeats as victories, if not face to face, over a gin-and-tonic or a whisky, and, if necessary, taking the good German frau to a flamenco show at three in the morning?

Why is it that nowadays you can't get a job watering gardens or walking dogs in Spain without knowing English, and our prime ministers remain ignorant of the language? What have we done to deserve this? Or better said: what haven't we done to deserve it?

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