There’s an amusing little byplay on the blogospheric right this morning about some comments made by Obama yesterday. Speaking in Georgia (on a totally different topic), the subject of bilingualism came up (courtesy of Salon):
You know, I don’t understand when people are going around worrying about, “We need to have English- only.” They want to pass a law, “We want English-only.”
Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language.
You know, it’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe, and all we can say [is], “Merci beaucoup.” Right?
You know, no, I’m serious about this. We should understand that our young people, if you have a foreign language, that is a powerful tool to get ajob. You are so much more employable. You can be part of international business. So we should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age, because children will actually learn a foreign language easier when they’re 5, or 6, or 7 than when they’re 46, like me.
I should probably mention from the get-go that Polimom was exceedingly lucky. I started French in the 2nd grade (when my parents put me into a private school), and was introduced to Russian in the 5th grade. Had I stayed in that school, I would have begun Latin in the 7th (which would have continued through graduation).
Instead, we moved and I transferred into the public school system, where I took Spanish in high school, and again in college, where my roommate was from Honduras. By the time I joined the Army, I was comfortable in 3 languages, rough in several others (but not afraid to try), and utterly at ease in a linguistic environment. So the Army decided I could serve best by learning Arabic.
All of which is to say that I get the topic of multilingualism at a profound, and personal, level.
Furthermore, I can tell you that Obama is absolutely right — particularly for Americans competing for jobs in our own market, let alone against global competition.
Because it’s a relatively rare skill, an American who has full mastery of English, and brings a second (or third) language into the equation, is an obvious asset. Unfortunately, the mastery of English is also a relatively rare skill — and that’s an absolute must before one can add other languages with proficiency.
What Obama’s exhorting here, though, is unlikely to be embraced, no matter how fundamentally correct. In fact, it will be twisted and spun, as always.
The sad truth is that Americans are notoriously provincial. Some of that is the natural by-product of living in a vast, somewhat isolated (geographically) country. Some of it is hubris. (“Why should we learn another language? They are all learning English!”) And some of it is xenophobia.
Some folks are reacting (oddly, imho) to the phrase about “instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English”. Ed Morrissey, for instance, (and others) derailed altogether on Obama’s suggestion of Spanish as a second language. (He also mentions French and German, but hey… whatever fits the narrative I guess.) Obama’s speaking directly to provincialism and xenophobia there, but that’s not going to be well received, even by people who understand the value of foreign language studies.
No, everybody who is worried about assimilation is not xenophobic, but if you’ve been following the “discussions” about illegal immigration, many people are. Denying that it’s so is to fluff over a real problem. Furthermore, that anger and “English only, dangit” are very tightly hand-clasped.
And so it goes.
There will be parents who will see the value, and will therefore enroll their kids in after-school language classes (as I’ve done with Adorable Child). Those lucky children will be able to absorb the progressively more in-depth studies, and take away something valuable. They’ll have additional skills on their resumes. More doors will open to them. They’ll have a better shot at a successful future.
And others will persist in deriding or downplaying the value of foreign languages… and will continue to miss the boat.
(Related post at The Moderate Voice, here.)
Added: Yes, people are seriously trying to make arguments that studying foreign languages is not a good idea. Amazing.