Native tongue: Renowned for his salty vocabulary, rather clipped delivery and uncompromising asides. Unafraid to employ earthy Russian street argot, he once threatened to wipe out Chechen rebels “in the shithouse”, and on another occasion – to press conference gasps and giggles – invited a journalist questioning Russia’s tactics in Chechnya to come to Moscow “to be circumcised” and join the rebels.
Language of diplomacy: Putin, a former KGB agent who spent five years in Dresden, is proud of his fluent German, said to have improved even further in recent years thanks to his friendship with former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Though comfortable conducting political discussions one-to-one in German, diplomatic protocol requires the Russian leader to revert to his native language when aides are in attendance to ensure they understand. Putin has also been studying English while president, but it is said that the judo black belt is still wrestling with our vowel sounds: he rarely speaks English in public, and never in a diplomatic setting. He did, however, woo the International Olympic Committee in heavily accented but convincing English when bidding for the winter Olympics in Sochi, and famously crooned the Fats Domino hit Blueberry Hill in English at a charity event.
Mark out of 10: 8
Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany
Native tongue: Nothing to see here. Merkel is from the old East Germany, but any mild provincial accent is less significant than her controlled, unflashy tone with its slightly extended vowels. Far from experimenting with Putin-style insults, the Christian Democrat leader’s worst linguistic gaffe was her much-mocked description of the internet as “neuland” – “uncharted territory” – in 2013.
Language of diplomacy: As a native of the old DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), Merkel studied Russian rather than English at school, and clearly worked hard: she won prizes for it and visited Moscow as a teenager (purchasing the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine during the trip). She’s still functionally fluent, and is happy to chat to fellow leader Vladimir Putin socially in Russian, though the pair use an interpreter once they move to formal diplomatic conversations to avoid little misunderstandings – that’s how wars start, after all. The German chancellor rarely speaks English publicly, though a part-English speech earlier this year to the UK parliament revealed her to be competent in the language (we would expect no less of the woman known to her electorate as “mutti” – mummy). Merkel has also developed her own trademark body language: a heart-shaped hand position known as the “Merkel Raute” (Merkel rhombus).
Mark out of 10: 7
François Hollande, president of France
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