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The English language used to be an asset of the US and UK. Now it has become a weakness.


Let’s zoom out from the Russian hacking of the American election. More broadly, hacking means extracting someone else’s information or inserting the hackers’ own information. English-speaking countries are particularly easy to hack because their enemies understand what they are saying. Being an English-speaking society is like living in a glass house: it makes you transparent. Conversely, foreign countries are opaque to mostly monolingual Britons and Americans. Foreigners know us much better than we know them. This asymmetry probably helped Russia get its favoured candidate into the White House, and it will handicap Britain in the Brexit negotiations.



The role of English has been changing fast. Until the 1990s Russia and China didn’t know much about what went on in western societies. Most Russian and Chinese anglophones had been killed or exiled after the communist revolutions, and were never replaced. Even the KGB was short of English-speakers: much of the intelligence sent to Moscow by British spies Kim Philby and Guy Burgess was never translated.

英语的作用变化很快。在上世纪90年代之前,俄罗斯和中国不甚了解西方社会的情况。多数俄罗斯和中国的讲英语者在共产党革命胜利后被杀或被流放,而且从未替换。甚至连克格勃(KGB)也缺少说英语的人:英国间谍金•菲尔比(Kim Philby)和盖伊•伯吉斯(Guy Burgess)发送给莫斯科的大量情报从未被翻译。

But from the mid-1980s, the opening of China, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the coming of the internet all boosted English. Chinese and Russian elites sent their children to study in the US and UK. From 1990 through to about 2010, British and American media and films gained unprecedented global influence.


In this period, the asymmetry of knowledge between English-speaking countries and their rivals became extreme. “There are now several million Russian citizens who are essentially bilingual and intimately acquainted with anglo societies,” says Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, political scientist at Oxford university. By contrast, most anglos stopped bothering to learn foreign languages.

在此期间,英语国家和其竞争对手之间的知识不对称性变得极其严重。牛津大学(Oxford University)政治学家里卡多•索尔斯•德奥利韦拉(Ricardo Soares de Oliveira)表示:“现在有几百万俄罗斯公民基本上具备双语能力,对英美社会非常熟悉。”与此形成反差的是,多数英美人不愿费力学习外语。

This first became a problem after September 11. The US and UK found the Arab world opaque. John Nixon, the CIA’s expert on Saddam Hussein, couldn’t interrogate him in Arabic. Nixon recounts in his new memoir Debriefing the President that, during the interrogations, the CIA’s interpreter would quarrel with the military interpreter: “No, that’s not what he said!” A watching Saddam cunningly took advantage, bonding with the military interpreter.

这在9/11后首先成为一个问题。美国和英国发现阿拉伯世界不透明。中央情报局(CIA)研究萨达姆•侯赛因(Saddam Hussein)的专家约翰•尼克松(John Nixon)无法用阿拉伯语审问他。尼克松在他刚出版的回忆录《提审总统》(Debriefing the President)中回忆道,在审问期间,中央情报局的翻译会与军方的翻译发生争吵:“不,他不是这么说的!”冷眼看着这一幕的萨达姆狡猾地利用了这一点,与那位军方翻译搞好了关系。

Just as English let down the anglophone powers in Iraq, so did their other traditional weapon of influence: warfare. They have given up on invasions. The US now spends $597bn a year on its military and still can’t stop Russian adventuring.


The new weapon is cyber warfare, but it works best for the US’s enemies. Hacking foreign files is worthwhile only if you can use the information. Russia and China have lots of well-informed people who can sift English documents looking for intelligence, says Adam Segal, author of The Hacked World Order. If they find anything embarrassing, they can disseminate it through English-language social media or the useful idiots of WikiLeaks. American media can then be relied on to amplify the story. Alternatively, foreigners can simply make up fake news in English.

新的武器是网络战,但它对美国的敌人最有用。只有在你能利用窃取的信息的情况下,黑进外国文件才有意义。《遭到黑客攻击的全球秩序》(The Hacked World Order)一书的作者亚当•西格尔(Adam Segal)表示,俄罗斯和中国有很多知识渊博的人士,他们能够从英语文件中筛选情报。如果他们发现了令人尴尬的信息,他们可以通过英文社交网站或维基解密(WikiLeaks)这种有用的白痴传播出去。接着他们就能依靠美国媒体放大故事。或者,外国人也完全可以用英语编造假新闻。

“It’s harder to do it in the other direction,” says Segal. The US lacks linguists who understand which foreign information matters most. Nor can it easily send the information back to ordinary Russians and Chinese, as China, in particular, censors the internet. The west’s old practice of “democracy promotion” has been superseded by the east’s “autocracy promotion”, says Soares de Oliveira. English-language newspapers and the once mighty BBC now face millions of new competitors on social media.


Britain has its own problems with English. Its twin centres of political power, Westminster and the tabloid newspapers, are almost entirely monolingual. Brits therefore voted for Brexit blithely unaware of how other European countries would respond. The Brexiter fantasy broadly went like this: “We’ll stop immigration, keep free trade with Europe, and sign whizzo new trade deals with everybody else.”


Britain does have a coterie of multilingual experts (mostly diplomats) who knew this wouldn’t fly. But precisely because these people understand European thinking, they are distrusted by Westminster and the tabloids. A case in point is last week’s resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s permanent representative to the European Union.

英国确实有一群多语种专家(多数是外交官),他们知道这种美梦不会成真。但恰恰是因为这些人了解欧洲人的思路,所以他们不被英国议会和小报信任。最近英国常驻欧盟代表伊万•罗杰斯爵士(Sir Ivan Rogers)辞职就是一个很好的例子。

Just as Donald Trump’s people have ignored the US state department, the UK’s Foreign Office — the one bit of the British state packed with foreign knowledge — has been sidelined ahead of the Brexit negotiations. Instead, the new department for exiting the EU will lead. Its boss, David Davis, is the man who said the Germans would give the UK a good deal because they sell cars in Britain. “The British political class is astonishingly ignorant of the EU, whether they are pro it or against,” says Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform.

就像唐纳德•特朗普(Donald Trump)的支持者忽视美国国务院一样,英国外交部(Foreign Office)(英国政府内部真正了解外国的部门)在英国退欧谈判之前受到冷落。新的退欧部门将领导谈判。该部负责人大卫•戴维斯(David Davis)曾经说过,德国将给予英国一项不错的协议,因为他们在英国销售汽车。欧洲改革中心(Centre for European Reform)主任查尔斯•格兰特(Charles Grant)表示:“英国政治阶层对欧盟出奇无知,支持或是反对欧盟的人都一样。”

The European principals in the Brexit talks understand Britain rather better. Grant continues: “They do watch the BBC, they can read English, they do read tweets of what the Daily Mail is saying.” Even Angela Merkel, schooled in East Germany, taught herself English by reading the communist Morning Star newspaper.

在英国退欧谈判中,欧方主要官员对英国更为了解。格兰特继续表示:“他们会收看BBC,会读英文,还会阅读有关《每日邮报》(Daily Mail)内容的推文。”就连在东德接受教育的德国总理安格拉•默克尔(Angela Merkel)当年也通过阅读英国共产党机关报《晨星报》(Morning Star)自学了英文。

The US has just been outsmarted by foreigners it didn’t understand. Britain may be next.


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