June 24, 2011 10:40 pm

Something in the way she speaks ...

Christine Lagarde’s command of English goes beyond language

“Je suis très touchée …”, Christine Lagarde begins her speech. Then she breaks off, and grins at her largely American audience: “Don’t worry, I’m going to speak English.” The French finance minister, surely the next head of the International Monetary Fund, remains French in her visual language.

When I saw Lagarde speak last week, she was wearing a scarf tied in a perfect geometric circle, holding her glasses in one hand as a prop, and standing as erect as you’d expect from a former member of France’s synchronised swimming team. But the salient fact about her is her English, absorbed over 25 years in the US. Lagarde was an exchange student at a Maryland private school, interned on Capitol Hill, and eventually ran the law firm Baker & McKenzie.

Her English is key to why everyone almost instinctively turned to her to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the IMF. The Economist, house magazine of the global Anglophone elite, called her “a superb communicator, a good negotiator and, by all accounts, an excellent manager”. Note which phrase came first. Lagarde is a woman for our times. To make it very big nowadays, speaking English usually isn’t enough. You need perfect English.

If you don’t speak perfect English, you can still triumph in certain havens. You can make it in the Chinese Communist Party. You can become a Russian oligarch. You can succeed inside a German machine-tool company, because Germans seem to be so good at making machine tools that they don’t need much foreign help. But most people who speak Globish – the simplified, dull, idiom-free version of English with a small vocabulary – can triumph only inside their own countries. Nicolas Sarkozy, who speaks Globish, can run France. That’s his limit. This matters, because the national sphere has become the second tier. Status and money are flowing to the bankers, executives, novelists, thinkers, and politicians who make it internationally. And they mostly speak perfect English.

Karl Kautsky, a Czech-German Marxist, foresaw this trend more than a century ago. “National languages,” he wrote, “will be increasingly confined to domestic use, and even there they will tend to be treated like an old piece of inherited family furniture, something that we treat with veneration even though it has not much practical use.” Kautsky foresaw a single global language, and sensed it wouldn’t be Esperanto.

Languages have always been tied up with jobs, writes the historian Eric Hobsbawm. He notes that “in African or Pacific British ex-colonies, the way to education, wealth and power” has long passed through English. Indians, too, have long known that if you speak English, you won’t starve. All over the world, there have always been strivers such as the spy George Blake or the actress Audrey Hepburn (both originally mostly Dutch), who abandoned their national language to reach the top with English.

But English matters more now, at every level of life. Last month Mamata Banerjee became chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, ousting the communists who had ruled for 34 years. One of her gripes was that the communists had made state schools teach in Bengali rather than English. Meanwhile, she charged, communist leaders had educated their own kids in English. “For our kids, it’s ‘oey ajagar ashchhey terey’ [the ABC song in Bengali]. But for children of Left leaders, it’s ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ and jobs as barristers when they graduate,” she roared.

Globish is no longer enough. When you speak Globish, your IQ as perceived by others drops approximately 30 points. In Globish, it’s hard to say anything subtle, funny or surprising. And Globish-speakers cannot mimic how the Anglophone elite talks. Lagarde has that down pat. In the speech I heard, she discussed a column in an American newspaper, invoked Adam Smith, teased France for its arrogance, and argued for entrepreneurs and free trade (albeit regulated). In short, she talked like an American. Her command of English went beyond language.

I’m not yet in the global elite, but I’m told that when it meets in Davos, the speakers of perfect English spend evenings at the bar together swapping projects and e-mail addresses. Meanwhile Francophone Globish-speakers huddle at a couple of tables in a corner. That’s not really the route to world domination.

Many ambitious young people have grasped this. Increasingly, they are doing their degrees in English, often without leaving home, as English-language universities mushroom in the unlikeliest countries. Still, transcending Globish is hard. I had dinner recently with some Englishmen and Swedes. The Swedes were highly educated, multilingual, had almost got past Globish into English, and yet it still wasn’t enough. In a flowing conversation, whenever a Swede spoke, time slowed down, the wit didn’t quite come out as well, and an Englishman swiftly picked up. Or there’s the east European novelist I know – highly educated, multilingual – who for obvious reasons wants to write his next novel in English. He sent me an English text he’d written. It didn’t work. I fear he’s doomed to national success.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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