A Multilingual Diplomat: Laurent Bili

The former French Ambassador to Turkey, Laurent Bili is quite an experienced diplomat and a real language lover. He now works as the Ambassador of France to Brazil. He shared his experiences, valuable thoughts and tips on learning and languages. (This interview was originally published in ILC TIMES Issue 3, 2015).


An interview by Tarik Uzun

Interviewer: Can you introduce yourself please?

LB: My name is Laurent Bili, the French Ambassador to Turkey. This is my second tour in Turkey. I worked as the first secretary in Ankara between 1996 and 1999; so I can say that this is my 7th year in Turkey. And I had a chance to start learning Turkish in the 90’s. Before coming to Turkey for the second time, I worked as the Ambassador to Thailand in Bangkok from 2007 to 2009 and as an undersecretary in the Ministry of Defence in France. For quite a long time, I worked as the diplomatic deputy undersecretary for our President Jacques Chirac too.

Interviewer: Let’s do some more politics. What do you think about the relationship between Turkey and France?
LB: Everything is quite good now. There is very intensive dialogue going on between the two countries, particularly on the issue of Syria. Also, the relationship between the leaders is much better compared to the past. President Hollande’s visit to Turkey was significant as it was the first formal visit for the last 22 years.


Interviewer: How did you first meet the Turks and the Turkish language?
LB: I had a chance to get in touch with a number of Turkish diplomats in France. I started to get more interested in the country and its culture as I didn’t know much about Turkey or the language. Then in 1996, I got appointed to Ankara for the first time. I decided to learn Turkish right away when I came to Ankara but I made some big mistakes. I had thought that it would have been similar to my previous language learning experiences and I would be able to learn Turkish by myself but it didn’t turn out to be so and I lost a few months. I’m still learning Turkish and I love its rhythm although the grammar is absolutely challenging for me. However, I have learnt to enjoy the grammar, too.

Interviewer: Could you please elaborate on what you think about Turkish?
LB: I have to say that intonation in Turkish sounds beautiful. Also, the language itself seems very mathematical, very systematic. However, as I dived into it, some complexities started to puzzle me, like the difference between looking at or seeing something (-e bakmak and –I görmek). I still keep asking myself “Why?” for such distinctions. As my teacher sometimes says, I have some fossilized mistakes which are not so easy to correct right now; for example, cases in Turkish are still problematic no matter how hard I try. I feel I should have studied more regularly. I now know that I won’t be a perfect speaker of Turkish but I can proudly say that I read a lot in Turkish and realize the beauties of the language. I suppose this is a great opportunity. It is always better to communicate with someone in his or her native tongue as it is usually regarded a more friendly attitude. Turks in particular value this when I speak in Turkish.

Interviewer: So, how many foreign languages do you speak?
LB: I can speak Turkish, English, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai. I took courses in Indonesian and German and studied some basic Flemish by myself previously. It is interesting because my language grades at school were very low but grades reflect formalities sometimes. I felt that I didn’t have language aptitude and went to Canada and the US when I was 19. This trip took two months and I hitch-hiked all the way through. I felt really confident at the end as I had improved my English really. The next year, I did the same and I travelled to Central America. I had a book on Spanish with me the whole way. At first, I could only point at something to get it, but later on I was able to have real conversations. This also increased my motivation and self confidence, which are two very important elements in learning a foreign language.

Interviewer: What can you say about the advantages of speaking a number of different languages?
LB: First of all, it is fun really because I like speaking the native languages of different people. You can communicate with people and exchange information more directly. As a diplomat, it is particularly useful as I can easily follow the media in different languages and see what is happening in Turkey and around the world. But the most important advantage is to build connections and form friendship with people. As we all know, English is no longer a foreign language. It makes all the difference if you speak foreign languages besides English. If you speak English, it’s OK, everyone does. If you don’t, that might be a real problem for you.

Interviewer: And finally, which foreign languages would you recommend our readers to learn?
LB: French 🙂 This might sound like I’m trying to promote the language but French is spoken in a number of different countries today as an official language. According to some research, it is also gaining popularity. In addition, China will be an important actor in the future as well, so people should learn Chinese too. Arabic is always important, particularly in this region. I think Italian is going to gain more significance in the future and should be taken into consideration. My humble suggestion would be that it is always more beneficial to learn languages that are widely spoken in different countries, such as French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian.

Interviewer: Thank you very much for this interview Mr. Ambassador.
LB: It’s my pleasure.




Photo Credit: Tarik Uzun


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