Episode VII: Studying English for Diplomatic Careers

In today’s episode, Amena, a Brazilian diplomat, talks about career opportunities in diplomacy and how she earned the chance to work for the UN. Learn about the role languages have played in her career and hear her advice on preparing yourself to follow the same path.


Intro: The Natural English Podcast: Success stories from beyond the English language barrier. Follow along with the transcript linked in the description.

Nahum - Natural: Welcome back to the Natural English Podcast. My name is Nahum and I’m an English teacher at Natural. If this is your first time listening to our podcast, it’s a podcast where we talk to professionals in different areas and hear about their career and how English and other languages have been important in their professional life. Today we’ll be hearing from someone in the area of diplomacy, including some time with the United Nations. Before we start, remember you can follow the transcript and review any language points from this conversation. Just access that through the link in the description. So, a big welcome to Amena. Thank you so much for joining today.

Amena: Thank you, Nahum. It’s a pleasure to take part of this podcast and share some of my personal experiences as a diplomat with you. Here I’ll be talking about my personal experience and obviously my, a little disclaimer here, the opinions are my own and they do not reflect the opinions of the MFA of Brazil.

Nahum - Natural: Absolutely. I’m really excited to hear a bit about your career in the next twenty minutes or so. First of all, where are you right now? Where are you talking from?

Amena: So right now, I am in Bulgaria and I’m covering Bulgaria and North Macedonia. But, as we were discussing briefly, I am also doing my PhD program in Switzerland. So, I keep going to different places. But, based in Bulgaria right now.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah, hopping on and off planes, I guess, quite regularly.

Amena: Yes. Except for the past year, because of the pandemic. I hope things get back to normal.

Nahum - Natural: Well, first of all, I would love to hear about some general ideas about careers in diplomacy. Maybe there are some people who are thinking about a career in diplomacy or a career change. I’d love to hear about some of those general ideas.

Amena: Alright. So, there are many possible international careers available, right? You can be an international civil servant in an international organization it can be in the United Nations. It can be in any other international organization, the IMF, WTO, there are so many nowadays. You can also be an expert in transnational NGO, an employee of a multinational company, or you can be an official from a government, which is my case. I’m a diplomat from Brazil. As a diplomat you have three main constitutional responsibilities. First, you represent your country internationally, and obviously, you can represent your country to another country, that’s what we call bilateral relations, or you can represent your country to an international organization, like the UN, which was what I was doing for a while in New York. The second is to negotiate, and that’s where language becomes important, because you have to negotiate treaties and agreements, and you obviously negotiate them in English, which is the working language for diplomacy. You can, again, negotiate them bilaterally with another country like a corporation agreement with the UK, for example. Or you can negotiate them within an international organization like the UN. There are hundreds of agreements that are negotiated every year in the UN, just to give you an idea. And then the third is to inform your country about international matters that are important to your country. Different topics like sustainable development, artificial intelligence, and what not.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah. I think we were talking a bit before about some things that maybe people should bear in mind about these roles, that they’re not necessary permanent roles, as in diplomacy often is a changing scenario for diplomats. That’s been the case for you, I believe.

Amena: Right. So, you are expected to rotate, as we say. You are expected to spend three to four years in one country and then be relocated to another country, and then you can stay up to ten years abroad and then go back to Brazil. Of course, that changes for every country, but those are the rules in Brazil. So, we have different classifications for the postings depending on the relevance of the country or on the living conditions. And then, you have to rotate from one to another every three to four years.

Nahum - Natural: Is that to ensure that you’re taking experience from one place to another place and applying that? Is that to take a new perspective on things, to keep ideas fresh?

Amena: Exactly. You know, it’s to expose you to different cultures and different experiences. For example, I was in the UN so the experience I had was with multilateral affairs as I said, so I was negotiating simultaneously with various countries together in an international fora. Forum, in this case because it’s just one. But now I’m in Bulgaria and the negotiations are bilateral, so I’m mostly communicating with the local authorities here, and it’s totally a different process. So, I sort of gathered experience with multilateral issues, but also with bilateral issues and they are two different tracks and very important ones for a diplomat.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah. Yeah, that’s great. If you like variety and a range of different challenges, then diplomacy sounds like a good option.

Amena: I like it, because you also get to know many different people and make new friends, and that’s the good side.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah, yeah. But changing countries, it seems so exciting. Maybe some people wouldn’t enjoy moving regularly. But I think if you have the right, I don’t know, perspective or passion for it, it’s perfect.

Amena: Yeah, it takes passion, and you know, it takes this drive for change. Most people are used to be based on one place in their hometown. That was never my case, I always wanted to travel, and you know, to know the world, so I think if you also have that you just go for it!

Nahum - Natural: And, just quickly, so if you want to be a diplomat, in some cases you apply directly to, for example the UN, or is it usually through your own government that will nominate you for that type of role?

Amena: So, there are two ways. You can become a diplomat, then a representative of your country, and for that in Brazil, you go through an exam. So, there is a national exam where you are tested on languages, but also different matters regarding national history, international history, international politics, international law, and those subjects, and then you pass the exam, you do a two-year training program, and then you are a diplomat, and then you are posted abroad for different roles and positions, as we discussed here. But you can also be an international civil servant, to the UN itself and then you apply directly to the UN, and then they have their own process, and then you become a UN staff, you’re not linked to your country anymore, so you represent the UN. But as diplomat, you can be seconded to the UN. That’s what I’ve done when I was in New York. At first, I was working to the Brazilian mission to the UN, as a Brazilian diplomat, representing Brazilian interests in the UN. And then afterwards, I was seconded to the UN, so I was an employee of the UN. And then, representing the UN and not the Brazilian government anymore.

Nahum - Natural: Sure, sure. Yeah, so similar to the UK have an intensive well, the several year training program and you if you're lucky enough, you'll get a posting somewhere. You've mentioned that the permanent mission of Brazil, the UN. Would you be able to share an example of an initiative that you worked on during that time?

Amena: OK, so back then I had really a lot on my plate. So, it's kind of difficult to single out one specific initiative. But, you know, like my first year I was working with human rights, women's rights, LGBTI rights, and then my second year was working with something totally different, peace and security, Security Council, the reformed Security Council. And then when I was seconded to the General Assembly of the United Nations, I was working mostly with peace and security. So, you can see it's like a variety of topics. But I have to say one thing I’m particularly proud of, was to have organized the major event on peace and security during the 72nd session of the General Assembly, where I basically organized an event to discuss how to ensure that peace lasts, and to make sure that states don't relapse into conflict once they manage to reach an agreement on peace. So, we gathered heads of states and governments and civil society and private sector to discuss the topic. And we came up with very interesting ideas which the U.N. are implementing. So, I'm very proud to have contributed to that discussion.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah, great to see your legacy. Not only outside of that area, you can still see the work continuing. Yeah, it's very impressive how it seems like they have so much knowledge on so many different areas or just an adaptability to quickly learn a lot about a specific subject that seems like a skill that would be required.

Amena: Definitely. Yeah, I would agree with that. You have to be flexible and willing to learn. Yeah, definitely a skill.

Nahum - Natural: Great, I'm looking a bit more at the language side, as you’ve said. English is the main language in diplomacy. What is expected, maybe for UN diplomats to begin with, and then other areas of diplomacy as well, in terms of language requirements is fluent English just the base basically that everyone is expected to have?

Amena: Well, as you know, the U.N. has five official languages, English, Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, Russian and French. But English is the working language. That means every negotiation is carried out in English. So, it's only after you agree on something, on a treaty, on a resolution that these documents are translated into the other four official languages. So, you have to really master English because these negotiations are very detailed negotiations and you really have to know the meaning of the words. And, you know, every comma matters. So, you really have to master the language. And that is also true for Brazilian diplomats and every other diplomat because all the meetings are carried out in English. And then you go to social events that are in English and, you know, working meetings that are in English luncheons and whatnot. So, you really have to have very advanced level of English, basic one too. It's one of the most difficult exams in the foreign service. I mentioned to you there are there is a national exam every year in the in our case, the required English, Spanish and French for the exams. And obviously they demand a very high level in these exams are very challenging. So, you have to prepare in advance.

Nahum - Natural: Is that for all three languages? Is that the same level? So top level of English, Spanish and French?

Amena: I would say that they expect that you have a higher level of English. However, the exams became very competitive, so Spanish and French ended up being a requirement that is also an advanced requirement because of the level of the creditors, not because the exams require a high level of Spanish and French. It's the level of competition of the exam.

Nahum - Natural: Well, it can be quite intimidating if neither of those three are your native languages. But you mentioned that before, you were like a late, late starter, so to speak, with English.

Amena: Yes, I mean, I come from a middle-class background in Brazil, so I come from the outskirts of Brasilia, so I didn't have the chance to study languages at the very early age in my life. So, I started studying English, I was already 18 years. Well, and yeah, I mean, I was very dedicated and, you know, I really loved reading in English, so I really made a huge effort to learn. And, you know, I always make mistakes. Everybody does, because I'm not a native speaker and I will never be. But that's not a problem. We joke in the in the UN that actually the current language is broken English. Everybody has an accent and everybody makes mistakes. And that's OK as long as you make yourself understood and that's what matters.

Nahum - Natural: Yeah, I know there's a lot of interpreters involved in the UN is that only four languages outside of those five or does anyone request the interpretation and kind of conferences.

Amena: The interpretation is only for those five official languages. Yes. So, you can speak in French if you like, but you have to bear in mind that sometimes if there is no translation, nobody will understand you. So, it's better to speak in English if there is no translation, if there is translation, it's OK. Unfortunately, you cannot speak Portuguese. We do make it in Brazil, in the General Assembly, the president, when he or she opens the General Assembly he or she speaks in Portuguese, but there is obviously someone we pay and it's not a UN staff to translate into English speech of the president.

Nahum - Natural: It's kind of a little Brazilian flag at the start of the conference.

Amena: Exactly.

Nahum - Natural: I think it's hugely encouraging to hear people will be hugely encouraged to hear that you started the real study at 18 years old. It kind of breaks the illusion that if you want to be really fluent, you have to start as a child, think it really breaks that illusion. Although you mentioned it was not an easy process and a lot of hard work and dedication. Just a disclaimer.

Amena: Yeah, well, I but I do believe that, you know, where there is, what's the expression, where there is a will there is a way. That leads us to the question as to what are the best practices for learning a language, right? Here is a tip. First of all, you have to be in touch with the language every day if you want to really speak a language. And then it may sound a little boring because you’re learning, and then you with your grammar next to you every day, that sounds sort of I don't want to do that. But, you know, there are different ways of learning language. And here's the tip. I think the best way is to do something in English that you like, for example, enroll yourself on a cooking lesson or on a photography lesson or on something that you really enjoy. So, you're going to be learning something that you like and enjoy and learning a language in a fun way. Besides, you probably be learning something fun with people that already speak English as a native, you're going to be in a class surrounded by people that are native speakers and not only learners of the language. So, you're going to certainly acquire another level of the language just by doing something you like.

Nahum - Natural: It's like almost passive learning because you're actually focused on the enjoyment of the activity at the same time, training your skills.

Amena: So, listening to a podcast while you’re jogging. Just make it fun and I'm sure you're going to that. That's what I used to do. Like, for example, I would listen to the radio, which is something very challenging because you don't see people when you're just listening to it. It’s more difficult to understand, you really have to understand every word if you are listening to the radio. Nowadays, it’s so easy. You have podcasts. I would just listen to the radios just before I slept everyday, to be in touch with the language, and I still read a lot of literature in English which is something I love. And now there are these audiobooks, which you can hear while you’re driving to your office, like 15 minutes will do, just help you with your vocabulary. It’s going to be fun.

Nahum - Natural: Amena, thank you so much for sharing your insights. I find it really, really interesting to hear from someone whose been inside the UN, worked as a diplomat. I’m still shocked by some of the language requirements, but it makes complete sense given the context in which you’re working. Thanks so much for sharing your insights.

Amena: Exactly, exactly. I thank you for the invitation again and keep in touch. And if your students have any question they want me to answer, they can always find me on the social media. I’m available. Reach out to me. Best of luck to you.

Nahum - Natural: amena_yassine?

Amena: amena_yassine? Yes.

Nahum - Natural: Great. Thank you so much.

Nahum - Natural: Thank you so much for listening to The Natural English Podcast. Remember, you can check out all our study resources online via our website. The link is in the description. And be sure to check us out in future episodes.

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