Language Fluency

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Language Fluency

When traveling, it is insufficient to have a team member  just ‘get by’ in speaking the foreign language of the country in which you are travelling; you need to have at least one team member who speaks the language fluently.

An EP specialist was travelling with his charge and was in the New Territories of Hong Kong SAR. The charge requested that he have his tuxedo pants and jacket pressed for that evening’s event.  The EP who spoke Cantonese rang the desk of the hotel and a bellhop was sent up.  The EP spoke in Cantonese to the bellhop and the bellhop looked at the EP in a perplexed way. The EP responded again in Cantonese “Please get this tuxedo pressed immediately.”  So the bellhop shrugged his shoulders and retuned 20 minutes later apologizing that the most he, the bellhop, was able to pawn the tuxedo for was 10 Hong Kong Dollars and handed the 10 dollars and pawn ticket to the EP professional.

In Casablanca, Morocco the EP who spoke Arabic was requested to find some classic guitar music CDs.  The EP went down to the market and began asking where he could buy music CDs. Several suggested he go to one address.  When he came to the address it was the location of what could be considered a musicians booking agency.  So he tried again speaking with the agency representative about looking for music by Andres Segovia, or Jose Tomas.  The agent, who did not understand the question had said that she was unfamiliar with those musicians, but if he, the EP, knew where they lived she would try and book them for him.  He tried to help her by telling her that she did not understand and that these men were dead. She shrieked and suggested he call the police immediately.

Pawning a tuxedo is a classic, but if one’s language ability is only good and not sufficiently fluent to get a tuxedo pressed or buy a music CD – one can only imagine what would happen under less comical circumstances.

Chinese and Arabic are atonal languages and even the slightest difference in pronunciation can cause  miscommunication. And while both EP’s where born respectively in China and Egypt they had issues.  The Chinese EP professional primarily spoke Mandarin.  The Egyptian spoke more of a dialect from southern Egypt from where his parents were born and he, living in England, just did not have the skills to deal with different dialects.

Imagine, (even though English is their native tongue), a Scottish Highlander trying get directions in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Actually, I don’t need to. That was one of the most enjoyable events assisting a lost traveler obtaining directions at a filling station; trying to translate English to English.  In between fits of convulsive laughter – I did my best to translate.

If you do not speak the language claimed by an EP candidate – that is fine.  Hire a local foreign language professor for a few $/ €⁄£ / to hold a conversation with the EP expert and if the expert says they are fluent, they are fluent.

Failing to do your homework you risk explaining to the client that you inadvertently pawned his tuxedo.

This Executive Protection article was written or edited by Baron James Shortt, the Executive Director of the IBA.


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