The ITN newsreader and former diplomatic editor is modest about his linguistic skills. The co-chairman of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry says that, on the whole, he gets by.
As a child in Trinidad he learned French, Latin and Greek, which have all been useful. At one stage his interest in learning French was fuelled by a wish to understand the secret messages that his parents often used to exchange in a broken French patois.
Although as a foreign correspondent he worked a lot in the Middle East, South East Asia and Russia, he never learned to speak Arabic, Urdu or Russian.
In 10 to 15 years time, Mr McDonald predicts, no reporter will be sent to work in those areas without some kind of fluency in the relevant language.
"I realise that what you miss is nuance. I always had to depend on translation." For example, if an interviewee was saying: "Of course I agree with your government", was it a statement of great support or one of slight irony? "Such understanding is crucial to accurate and effective reporting."
On the need for knowledge of foreign languages in the business world, he points to comments by former German chancellor Willy Brandt. "He said to somebody 'I don't mind if in the bar we speak our own languages, but if someone is trying to sell me something he should do it in German.' I think that is probably true."
Without wishing to prejudge the outcome of the continuing inquiry, Mr McDonald says that his impression was that the field of adult foreign language study was in a fairly healthy state.
"There is a continuing question about the facilities and how good they are and whether we cannot do much better," he added.
"However, I think my basic view would be that adult language learning is very strong and very, very encouraging.
"There is a greater feeling that if you want to immerse yourself in people's culture, understand more what makes people tick, if you are going to try to buy from and sell to them you need to do a little more - not just modern European languages, but Chinese and Japanese. Some of these countries have traditionally used their languages as a kind of barrier.
"We hope that when this inquiry finally reports, it will form some kind of national view of what we need as a people to get by."