Obama on bilingualism

Posted by: ST on July 9, 2008 at 9:57 am

Salon.com has excerpts from a Q&A Barack Obama did with supporters in Powder Springs, GA on Tuesday.  On the question of bilingualism, here’s what he had to say: 

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.

Ed Morrissey responds:

Also, Obama’s argument here makes no sense.  He’s complaining that Americans don’t speak the native language when we visit Europe, but that we don’t speak the immigrant language when people move to the United States.  With that argument, shouldn’t we expect Europeans to speak English when we travel there?

I agree that everyone should learn a foreign language.  I spoke French for a while, and I know a little Spanish from growing up in Southern California, and I studied Irish for several years.  The study of foreign language not only broadens one’s cultural perspective, but it also helps in understanding one’s native tongue.  However, to argue that Americans should learn Spanish as a higher priority than insisting that immigrants learn English is nonsense, and Obama’s argument for it is a giant non-sequitur.  It carries a strong whiff of America-bashing, too.

In light of this news, Tom Maguire weighs in with some important questions for Obama:

LEFT UNREPORTED:  How many languages does Barack speak?  And how are his kids (ages 10 and 7) doing with their Spanish, or do they also embarrass him as the rest of us rubes do?  I’d hate to think this is one more “do as I say” scenario similar to Barack’s no-smoking aspiration.

Obama’s often described certain criticisms leveled at him as indications that the “silly season” of the presidential election campaign has arrived.  I disagree.  The “silly season” started the moment he started riding the fence on a number of core issues he pledged to his supporters that he would stand firm on, which as we know by now turned out to be a load of you-know-what, and it continues with silly stances on issues like English-only and bilingualism.  This is nothing more than a shameless attempt at catering to the Hispanic community, a group of people both he and John McCain desperately want to win over before the general election.

What’s the Spanish word for “pandering,” Senator Obama?  Surely you’d know more so than us uncultured saps, right? Or maybe not (scroll – h/t: Jim Geraghty).

Update – 10:40 AM: Dana Milbank and I are on the same page about something?  Forget the “silly season” – the scary season in politics has arrived!

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  • 17 Responses to “Obama on bilingualism”


    1. I think Tigerhawk put it best: do we really want a president who’s embarrassed in front of the Europeans? /:)

    2. Tom TB says:

      “you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.” Who are you, Barry O., to single out ONE second language out of many spoken in this country that OUR children should learn? A panderer to a single voting demographic, that’s who! What do you have against learning Polish? English is the international language of aviation, as a frequent flyer like you should should know! (rant over and out)

    3. I love this part from Salon

      There’s nothing particularly exceptional about Obama’s position, unless you are an English-only partisan cowering in fear of your cultural identity being swamped by funny-looking people from strange lands. Or one of the similarly insecure patriots who believe any criticism of the U.S. is a sign of “blame-America-first” treachery. And I suppose the whole comment about “going to Europe” opens Obama up to more charges of elitism, and disconnection from the lives of those who, right now, can’t afford to even think about going to Europe.

      The old Dem “you damned right wing bigots” scenario/talking point rears its ugly head, as usual.

    4. NC Cop says:

      I think Tigerhawk put it best: do we really want a president who’s embarrassed in front of the Europeans?

      Exactly the comment I was going to make. For a guy who supposedly has so much pride in his country, he sure doesn’t seem to have many good things to say about it.

    5. arcman says:

      The silly season of politics started the minute that Obama threw his hat in the ring. The fact that he is a serious contender for the Presidency, and might well become President, is the testament to the idiocracy of the American people.

    6. Tristan says:

      I believe that Obama is actually trying to distract us right now. Have you noticed that every day he’s speaking about a different issue, and most of them are “fluff” like “Hey I’m a patriot” or “look at my kids” or “young folks should volunteer” or “let’s all learn another language”, and the MSM eats it up. Even the comments on faith based initiatives or the DC gun ban are distracting, although less fluffy.

      I think he’s doing this because there are a few issues that he wants to avoid. The first is that Iraq is so much better now then when he started campaigning in Jan 2007 and its on track to be a non-issue by the election, especially if the October surprise is that the first 40,000 troops will be home by Xmas and the next 40,000 by Easter.

      The second is the record of the Democrats in congress. The central premise of his campaign is that Bush was a disaster and you need the Democrats to come in and fix everything. Problem is the Democrats were elected in 2006, and gas prices are higher, the stock market is worse, etc etc. And neither Obama nor the Dems have a record of actual achievement they can run on, just some plans, speeches, etc, and those are all over the map. When someone pokes a hole in that logic, he’s finished.

    7. alchemist says:

      So, are y’all suggesting we should NOT push our kids to speak another language? Seems silly to me. Doesn’t have to be spanish, could be chinese, japanese or hindi. They’re are a number of employers who pay big bucks for fluency.

    8. Lorica says:

      could be chinese, japanese or hindi.

      None of these were taught in the High School I went too. You had a choice of French, German or Spanish. Jr. High was even worse, French or Spanish. Now the reality of the situation is that the majority of the people I know that took a 2nd language in JR High or High School, couldn’t speak it by the time they hit 25. How many times have you heard someone say, “4 years of French, and I am clueless on what to order off of a French Menu”, or something to that extent. A very Dear friend of mine took German in High School, by the time she actually got to Germany, all she could remember is how to order a beer. =))

      Personally, appreciation for another culture, does not begin or end with a foreign language. It begins with knowing the people and appreciating them, but then again, I am not a chicken little Dem, the sky isn’t constantly falling when I don’t get my way. – Lorica

    9. Great White Rat says:

      So, are y’all suggesting we should NOT push our kids to speak another language?

      Alchemist, I think you’re missing the point. No one is saying there anything wrong with learning another language. The point is that Obama thinks it is more important for native-born Americans to learn Spanish than it is for immigrants (illegal or otherwise) to learn English.

      The political pandering aside, don’t you think he has that exactly backwards?

    10. Alchemist:

      So, are y’all suggesting we should NOT push our kids to speak another language?

      Quite the contrary. I think foreign languages should be required from grammar school on. But for their own worth to the student, not to keep the Prophet Barack from being embarrassed.

      More seriously, his comment was a milder version of the kind of shame left-liberals and lefties have expressed in their own country, especially when vacationing among our European betters. I love European History and culture, but I’m not sure why our lefty elites have this desperate need for European approval and have to beg for it by slagging their own country. (e.g., Michael Moore, Al Gore,Eason Jordan, The Dixie Chicks … the list goes on.)

    11. Baklava says:

      alchemist without grasping the issue asks, “So, are y’all suggesting we should NOT push our kids to speak another language?

      Proposition 227 in CA had the goal of immersing non-English speaking kids into English classes because they were trapped as second class citizens by people like yourself with ‘good intentions’. IMMIGRANTS clamored for this proposition because THEIR OWN KIDS were not able to advance themselves in America.

      From the website:

      Begun with the best of theoretical intentions over thirty years ago, bilingual education has proven itself a dismal practical failure. For decades, millions of mostly Hispanic immigrant students have remained trapped in these Spanish-almost-only classes.

      Then in 1996, immigrant parents began a public boycott of Ninth Street Elementary in Los Angeles after the school administration refused to allow their children to be taught English. Their example inspired the 1998 California “English for the Children” initiative, which won in a landslide and successfully dismantled most bilingual education programs in that state. As a direct result, the test scores of over a million Hispanic students rose by an average of 40% in just two years.

      If you want to ask stupid questions – yes stupid – how’s this one for you alchemist.

      Are you FOR these kids being held back? Or you against these immigrant parents? Are you in the minority of the population that believes immigrants should continue on with their own language.

      THIS IS NOT about being able to take second languages in school and YOUR confusion about that is a reflection of your mindset and less about the facts. Learn the facts or stay ignorant.

      Sure. I took German and Spanish in school. Nobody, let me repeat NOBODY is asking to take those classes out of school. And if there is a single body trying that that still doesn’t make the issue about that.

      Sorry about my tone.

    12. Tom TB says:

      Obama keeps coming across as an American who is embarrassed by his fellow Americans, and he wants to be OUR President?

    13. Mwalimu Daudi says:

      Mimi sioni shida raia wakitaka wenyeye kujifunza lugha ya kigeni. Lakini serikali ingewasabibisha raia kujifunza hiyo tutakuwa na tatizo kubwa. Je – hakuna mambo muhimu mengine kwa serikali kufikiria? Na mbona watu wajufunze Kiespania badala ya Kiewahili?

      (I don’t see a problem if citizens themselves want to learn a foreign language. But if the government requires it we will have big trouble. Are there really no other important matters for the government to think about? And why on earth should it be Spanish rather than Swahili?)

    14. CZ says:

      Sure wish I had taken Jibberish in high school.

      That way I would be able to understand what this Marxist Democrat Deity is trying to say from one day to the next so I could jump on his hoopty wagon with the rest of those clowns.


    15. Tango says:

      Harumph! I wonder what BarryO has against authentic frontier gibberish? <):)

    16. teqjack says:

      Hey, some academic exposure to language other than English is OK – I took four years each of French and Gernan in High School. But as noted in an earlier comment, it was only a few years before naught but scraps were left – and of course, even while I was taking the courses I could not have held a conversation or read a newspaper in those languages.

      What I got from BHO is that he is unaware that many schools already require a foreign-language course, he has Spanish on his mind for well-known political reasons, and he is clueless that those Europeans fluent in other than their own tongue have both economic reason and geographic availability. Where I live, I would have to search out non-English, though admittedly neither Spanish nor Portuguese would be hard to find with Russian and Vietnamese in enclaves, but I have no incentive to do so. Might be different if I worked as a police officer or just about any job in a hospital.

      Besides, I do speak some “foreign” lingo. Consider a well-known drink of milk and ice cream, often with added flavor[s], churned in a blender to a state somewhere between liquid and solid. I grew up in Rhode Island, where it was a frappe (French spelling, but no, the “e” was not pronounced at all and certainly not as a long “a”). But if I went to Massachusetts I knew to order a cabinet. Connecticut back then, like certain chain fast-food outlets now, called it a milk shake – which did and does strike me as silly, a milk shake is milk with powdered chocolate and sugar and is stirred by hand or shaken like a martini and is NOT dramatically beaten by a mechanical monster capable of chewing off fingers.

      And I knew a soda was, in Massachusetts, a tonic.

      So there you go, BHO, three languages. Happy?