Barack Obama addressed the issue of official languages yesterday by endorsing one: Spanish. Instead of worrying about immigrants learning English, he told an audience, America should be teaching its children Spanish. Every child should be bilingual, Obama said, but listen to the language he chooses later:
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,
Well, which is it — should we teach them Spanish or French? Maybe we should teach them Chinese, or perhaps Arabic. Immigrants come from around the world to live in America. Perhaps Obama doesn’t realize this, but they don’t all speak Spanish. If our children have to learn foreign languages so that immigrants feel at home here, then we’d better plan on keeping them in school for about 30 years.
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.
Update: Andrew Leonard has the usual counterargument at 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.
But to most people who actually grasp the fact that we live in a complex, interconnected global economy, being able to speak more than one language just makes a lot of sense. Maybe those of us who do feel threatened by Spanish-language signs in government offices would sleep a little easier if we understood what they they were saying.
No one argues that a second language doesn’t help, but like Obama, Leonard seems to have divided the world into English and Spanish. Government offices produce literature and signs in a multitude of languages; are we to learn all of them instead of having immigrants learn English? Putting the onus of assimilation on the host is not just impractical, it’s downright rude.
If I emigrated to a country where English was not the language, I would not demand that the government produce signs and panphlets in English; I’d learn the language. My children would learn it as well if I expected them to succeed in their new land.