English as a very foreign language
Several years ago, I returned from a quick trip to Paris on El Al Business Class. As everybody knows, El Al’s security measures are peerless, but just before the gate at Orly airport, the French insisted on putting us all through a second metal detector. I buzzed. Now, I am a big believer that there can’t be too much security, and would normally have been happily compliant as they played hide and seek with my belt and shoe heels (this was before shoe heels were a real security item). But this was France. And this was a security officer pulling on white gloves. And he was French. He barked at me in his Gallic tongue, and – despite five wasted years at school doing my bit for the Entente Cordiale – I just looked at him like a gentleman would look at a barking puppy. He barked again – and that was it; I flipped:
‘Speak to me in English! There is only one international language today, and you will speak to me in it!’
He barked again, this time signaling I should turn around. Not likely with those damned white gloves, Pierre!
I then did something rather disingenuous for the first and only time in my life:
‘I am an Israeli. I speak English. Why don’t you?’
At this point, the El Al security officer who had interviewed me earlier, and had suffered my heavily accented Hebrew, together with her two colleagues who were standing nearby, actually burst out laughing. Suffice to say, not wishing to spend the weekend in the Bastille, I did ultimately comply. I have no idea why he wore the white gloves – he went nowhere near my Maginot Line.
What made me raise this now in a tax blog? A few weeks ago, the OECD uploaded the latest version of Israel’s Transfer Pricing Country Profile. The document involves, in the main, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers with a space for the reference in statute law. So far, so good. But, here and there, a few short sentences are necessary. Aye, and there’s the rub.
Hardly any of it was in grammatical English. I had difficulty even understanding some of the sentences.
This is a disgrace, and I don’t think it is restricted to Israel.
One of the principal reasons the OECD has been able to advance its BEPS international tax agenda so efficiently is that the world has learnt to communicate in a common language. This is not about triumph or ego. It is about efficiency.
And, of course, the advantages go far, far beyond tax. There really is no reason today why the sine qua non for any function in the international sphere should not be relative fluency in English. The only exception would be a prime minister or president who is elected by the people (mind you, the current president of France seems to have a better command of English than the current president of the United States.)
And, as for the written word, if I were the OECD, I would put red ink all over the Israeli (and any other unacceptable) entry and send it back marked; ‘Not good enough. Try again’. That is how we learnt English in school. The stick also helped – but I wouldn’t put that in the hands of any organization based in Paris.