Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Obama and the foreign language thingy 

Tom Maguire is rather good on Barack Obama's argument that we all need to learn a foreign language, specifically Spanish. Among other things, we are apparently supposed to be embarrassed at the multi-lingualism of European tourists:

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?

From this we learn two things. First, that Barack Obama is easily embarrassed by Europeans. Not a good trait in a president. Second, that he does not understand economics.

Native Anglophones -- Americans, Brits, and so forth -- do not learn foreign languages because they already know the language for which there is the highest return on investment. English is the world's second language. If you are French, German, or Norwegian, you have to learn English to do business or buy a train ticket virtually anywhere in the world. If you are American or British, you can get by with the language you learned at you mother's knee -- French is useful in France and a few other places as a courtesy or a device for learning French literature and culture, but neither are particularly big payoffs for the years required to learn the language. If your native language is Norwegian, what are you going to do with that? Talk to the other 4.6 million Norwegians who constitute less than 0.1% of the world's population? You have to learn English, which is just as well because your language is well on its way to becoming an historical curiousity.

I certainly agree that our children would be better off if they learned foreign languages early in their education, but they would also be better off if they learned to read and write English well, do math, and generally learn how to learn. Fear of being linguistically unmanned by multi-lingual European tourists is manifestly not one of the several good reasons to teach Americans foreign languages.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 08:43:00 AM:

Obama's fretting about foreign languages makes quite the contrast with his breeziness about English: "Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English -- they'll learn English -- you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish." What are the blighted prospects of an immigrant kid compared to the embarassment of a Bobo?

You can see, though, why his erstwhile liberal supporters have been getting nervous lately. Once we accept the notion that if someone really needs to learn English he'll pick it up somehow whether the schools teach it or not, it's all too easy to draw the same conclusion about contraception.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 08:44:00 AM:

As I have encountered it, the fear isn't of being linguistically overmatched by tourists, but instead our children being linguistically overmatched by their competing students abroad as globalized business expands. It has been my experience that German business owners do prefer working with someone who speaks both English and German, and I imagine the same is true for the French, Swiss, etc. If we are going to live in a globalized world where people do exhibit preferences as to what language they will be working in, and it is so much easier to learn a language as a child, I think it makes sense to aggressively promote language education at an early age. (In addition to other facets of well-roundedness like Math and Science.)  

By Blogger John McCormack, at Wed Jul 09, 09:12:00 AM:

No Anglophone should be discouraged from learning other languages but, as TH points out, the opportunity costs are far higher for us.
Fifteen years ago, I went to work for the then largest Swiss bank and thought I might have had a leg up on other Americans because of my proficiency in German.
I quickly learned, though, that the mandatory language for most internal communications was, er, English. This, despite the fact that Switzerland has four official languages (none of them English).
It turned out that a knowledge of Swiss-German (an oral but not really a written language) was politically useful but ignorance of it was hardly a career stopper. I was amazed that almost all Swiss-Germans I encountered at the bank preferred English to German-German (what they called "School German")despite the fact that they had been reading and writing it since the first grade.
Similarly, the official internal language of Scandinavian Airlines is also English despite the fact that Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian are fairly closely related languages.
For fundamental economic reasons,foreign language proficiency in various countries varies inversely with the size of that country's population.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 09:13:00 AM:

The languages that Americans should learn are those spoken by hundreds of millions: Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Chinese. I used my knowledge of Spanish in working in Latin America.
Regarding prostrating ourselves before the Europeans, Assistant Village Idiot has a good essay on “the change he (Obama) is looking for is when a little girl can go abroad and be proud to say she is an American.” He points out that those Americans who are ashamed of the US tend to be Arts and Humanities liberals.

I see no pressing need to learn Norwegian. After all, even Garrison Keillor’s Norwegian Bachelor Farmers speak English!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 09:31:00 AM:

To reinforce mccormacks response to sovereign:

The percentage of the American population which will be involved in international trade is miniscule so it makes little, if any, sense to devote substantial learning time to a skill which will be utilized by less than 1% of the population.

A much better plan would increased education more universal fields such as math, science, trade, and finance to make American students the Goto specialist in those fields and the international business would flock to them along with domestic companies.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 09:33:00 AM:

Don't forget the elephant in the room: illegal immigration. Why force them to learn English when you can force Americans to learn Spanish?

California is the ultimate example of this: they provide voting materials in many languages, despite the fact that naturalized citizens are supposed to have demonstrated proficiency in English during the application process. From my point of view, any citizen who doesn't have sufficient command of English to read and understand both the issues at hand and the ballot itself shouldn't be voting. It would be no different if I were to try understanding German politics without having a command of the German language. I conclude the only reason California does that is to permit non-citizens to subvert its elections, something which some of its cities have already admitted to in substance (if not explicitly).  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 09:41:00 AM:

Most quality colleges these days have a foreign language requirement, as do most good high schools. In both, the requirement is often two or three years of the same foreign language. That adds up to four or more years of study of foreign language. At a few schools (e.g., Groton), the requirement is two or three years of both a modern and an ancient language, meaning at Groton, for example, approximately half of your course work will be foreign language for at least half of your high school years.

I believe this movement to require foreign language as part of an "enlightened" curriculum, at least at the college level, has its origins in the late 1970's and early 1980's, and if I recall correctly, Bart Giamatti (then President of Yale and previously a middling scholar in English and literature) wat at the very forefront of those pushing for these requirements. His theory, such as it was, suggested that familiarity with foreign language would "open our eyes" and make us "see the world as others see it."

That is all well and good, but I have yet to meet many if any students who have satisfied these requirements and who actually see the world all that much differently. What these requirements boil down to is a) job security for teachers and professors of foreign language, who suddenly have built-in demand for their trade b) a tedious regime of memorization and drill c) displacing opportunities to take other, perhaps more enlightening courses.

If our goal is really to "open the eyes" of college students, wouldn't be better off requiring a course in ancient philosophy as well as a course in modern philosophy, and if we wanted to get really adventurous, why not a a course in sociology as well as a course in economics and psychology? Does anyone really believe that students are better off learning a year or two of Spanish than they would be learning about Plato, Kant, Descarte, Durkheim and Freud in well-taught courses at the university level?

The other thing these requirements do at the high school level is reward diligence at the expense of imagination and creativity. There may be a benefit to doing that, but I don't know what we should do it blindly or without thinking about the long-term consequences.  

By Blogger GreenmanTim, at Wed Jul 09, 10:34:00 AM:

I recall very little of the German classes I took in College, and seldom find myself needing to conjugate Latin verbs the way I did in High School. However, after more than a decade I still dream in Afrikaans and remember nearly all the Oshiwambo I learned in Namibia. Immersion taught me more about foreign languages and cultures than anything I did in a classroom. And as TH says, learning how to learn is an essential skill.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 10:45:00 AM:

You mentioned that Barack Obama specifically said young Americans should learn Spanish. Why then did you respond with arguments against learning French or Norwegian?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 10:49:00 AM:

I understand that Obama speaks some secondary language spoken in Indonesia, where he lived from ages 6 to 14. I'm sure that's very useful.

I wonder why Obama didn't use President Bush as an example of someone who has learned a foreign language while not living in the country and who is conversant in a second language. Perhaps he could compliment President Bush and Governor Bush as good examples for our children to learn another language. (When pigs fly, that will happen!)
Texas Mom  

By Blogger mike volpe, at Wed Jul 09, 11:09:00 AM:

Not only are you correct, however it is simply a distortion to claim that Americans don't know foreign languages.

You are correct that English is a must to learn for those that speak more obscure languages, however American schools do an excellent job of offering and teaching foreign languages. This idea that we are somehow lost in our own world and know nothing else is nonsense. Most schools begin in sixth grade offering foreign languages, and most Americans learn at least one other.  

By Blogger DaveG, at Wed Jul 09, 11:12:00 AM:

I'm going to learn Australian. You know, just because.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 11:16:00 AM:

Actually, GWB's Spanish is horrendous, or so I've read. :)

My son is learning Spanish in school, as I have urged him to do. I think his generation will need it, with the seeming flood of people from South America coming into this country that our government seems unwilling to control.
I travel to France all the time, and yes, every one speaks English (some people very badly). Our parent company in France carries on negotiations with other companies around the world in, you guessed it, English (in India, China, Indonesia, the Phillipines, etc.). And sometimes they do this very badly because their command of English and idiomatic English is not strong.
I know for a fact that the Indians prefer to discuss matters with us (Americans) or the Brits, because of a better command of English (plus the French are characteristically bad business men - get DEC to testify to that).


By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Jul 09, 11:23:00 AM:

Another point that no one seems to ever think of... I recently drove about 2500 miles across the United States. At no time did I enter any place that did not speak the very same *dialect* of my language. (American English)

Drive 2500 miles in Europe and how many languages will you encounter? 6? 10?

Combined with the fact that TH made that English is the world's second language already there is simply no reason, at all, for a typical American to learn another language.

Another thing... there is something I've learned about when people (especially Europeans) talk about their worldliness. Basically, they inflate their abilities to seem impressive. "I know 4 other languages" actually means "I can order dinner and hold basic conversation in 4 other languages." I knew a sailor once who claimed to speak English, Gaelic, Russian, Italian, Polish, and Arabic, but the only languages that she could actually speak with any confidence were English and Italian. (while her Arabic vocabulary was vast, she was a terrible speaker) Another airman's wife did the same thing, but with a different language set. (including Hebrew, Japanese, and Chinese)

Also, I don't really consider knowing both Italian and Spanish (for example) much of an accomplishment. Both are derived from the same parent language, and have near identical grammar and syntax and even vocabularies.

Big challenge.  

By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Wed Jul 09, 11:35:00 AM:

just thinking about electoral politics, Obama's comment strikes me as remarably ill-considered, and reflecting poor judgment.  

By Blogger D.E. Cloutier, at Wed Jul 09, 12:03:00 PM:

English is the language of international business and aviation. (You can't have people talking to a control tower in 27 different languages.) But you do need to know other languages to pick up women around the world.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 12:30:00 PM:

Dawnfire82 beat me to the punch...

Is knowing how to converse (at least marginally) in another language such a considerable (and admirable) feat when you are virtually situated on the border of an "area" where another language is spoken?

Would it come as a great surprise to find out that Americans situated near the Mexican border are more apt to know at least some Spanish? Ditto for those on the along the (French) Canadian border understanding some French?

Is this to be considered virtuous for some reason?

It's great being multilingual, but most of the time, it's simply a matter of circumstance.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Wed Jul 09, 12:41:00 PM:

This comment has been removed by the author.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Wed Jul 09, 12:44:00 PM:

But you do need to know other languages to pick up women around the world.

DEC hits the nail on head, as usual.

A set of diverse experiences is a good thing.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 07:58:00 PM:

The boorish( & quietly fascistic ) behavior of the Left ( generally speaking) is breathtaking
as is the covert posing/rank social climbing masquerading as sophistication or , " nuance" a la JFKerry et cie.English dominates because it is a highly adaptive- plastic , if you will , tongue.French? nope...German...nope,Spanish?Hungarian?Slavic?...ponder the Anglecization of the Han language(one of a plethora of variations)-OK Barry , let's speak Urdu, shall we- and along the way , practice their lovely , enlightening fashion of misogeny, institutionalized practice of chattel-mongering( I just made my point ) and racial bigotry--- pal! if you think you know racism , give yer head a shake, until you see Asia and Africa ( Mugabe for starters?) and those lovely salubrious environs of the devotees of the "religion of peace"...learn history: the Suffragette movement,become acquainted with Wm.Wilberforce and , along the way , discover Anglo-decency( not to mention eccentricity)oh! and flip the passport holding numbers from 40% have one, to 60% obtaining one...then travel the world...leaving it up to the And.Coopers and C. Amanpours and Charles Enderlins of this world is abrogating all responsibility and core-knowledge.Listening to them recalls Muzak for me...England and the British people made an incredible contribution...America is the extension of that culture and we are taking it one step more, THAT's why everyone who wants to move up , speaks English.
Fair play and opportunity=freedom in the making. Recall bin Laden's strong horse?...it speaks English. Has the penny dropped yet? How about the kopek...jeeeez.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 08:00:00 PM:

dawnfire82 -- Well if your claim to foreign policy expertise was that you attended grade school in Indonesia for a couple of years, you might look at it differently.

Personally, I think students would benefit more from mandatory economics, civics, and history -- the real stuff, not the pseudo-revisionist pap.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 09:15:00 PM:

Better to speak and write English well than to try to speak multiple languages badly. The famous European archaeologist V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957) fancied himself a linguist and tried to speak the language of whatever country he was in. Stories abound that after 5 minutes his hosts were usually begging him to speak English. I think that learning foreign languages is good mental discipline as well as a way to learn something about another culture or about one's heritage. If one makes a long-term commitment to living, working, or doing research in a country, then certainly it is helpful to develop a working knowledge of the native language. But the idea that we should try to master a language just to show how cosmopolitan we are is risible.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 09:54:00 PM:

Methinks the crowd doth protest too much, but one point not raised here is that 13% of America's population is foreign-born. Hence there will always be a fair number of naturally bilingual speakers to handle matters of international communications.

But the point of learning a foreign language isn't the language itself (duh); the point is it allows you to come closer to a foreign culture than you might otherwise, which is something that many Americans (particularly those in positions of power) could use a lot more of.

On the so-called dominance of the English language internationally, one could do worse than read Sam Huntington's chapter 3 in The Clash of Civilizations:

"The world's language is English", as the editor of the WSJ put it. This can mean two things, only one of which would support the case for a universal civilization. It could mean that an increasing proportion of the world's population speaks English. No evidence exists to support this proposition, and the most reliable evidence that does exist, which admittedly cannot be very precise, shows just the opposite.

Among the statistics he cites, for example, is that while 7.6% of the world's population spoke English in 1992, 18.8% spoke Chinese (primarily Mandarin).  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Jul 09, 10:05:00 PM:


"But the point of learning a foreign language isn't the language itself (duh); the point is it allows you to come closer to a foreign culture than you might otherwise, which is something that many Americans (particularly those in positions of power) could use a lot more of."

But the primary reason that many foreigners learn English IS for the language itself, because it is useful, not because they are interested in immersing themselves in Anglo culture.

There's no reason that Americans cannot have the same motive.

"Among the statistics he cites, for example, is that while 7.6% of the world's population spoke English in 1992, 18.8% spoke Chinese (primarily Mandarin)."

However, many of those Mandarin speakers also speak English. It's a common anecdote that China technically has more English speakers than the US. Those statistics can only be valid if you are counting *native* speakers.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Jul 09, 10:32:00 PM:

English is the language of business world wide.

Every few years there is a flurry of activity noting that Americans speak English and that only a small percentage of Americans speak another language. After millions upon millions of tax dollars are wasted on language, we go back to barely teaching English and math in school.

This is America. If you are going to live here you should speak English, not Spanish or Arabic or Hindi. Multi-culturalsism is destroying our country.

If we must spend more money on languges in schools, we should start teaching Latin again.


By Blogger Georg Felis, at Wed Jul 09, 11:45:00 PM:

Heck, we've swiped all the good words from dozens of languages all over the world, doesn't that count?  

By Blogger Cas, at Thu Jul 10, 12:55:00 AM:

One of the best reasons to learn of different language when you're young is the fact that having to learn a different grammar and vocabulary makes one appreciate WHY it is important to learn these components of a language in order to be fluent in reading and writing, as well as speaking, a language.
If more American students learned a different language (besides their native language, or the other language spoken at home), they would appreciate both the idiosyncrasies as well as the richness of English, and write and speak it better when they eventually escape our public school system  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jul 10, 06:56:00 AM:

By 2050, the world's top 10 nations by population will include 5 where English is the native language of government and the educated (even if for some or most people it might be their personal second language) - India, the United States, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nigeria. The British Empire casts a long shadow. None of the other top 10 countries share a native language and by then India will have overtaken China in population to become the largest nation in the world. The future is English.  

By Blogger Mannning, at Fri Jul 11, 05:25:00 PM:

Of course NATO uses English as its common language, as do most of the European armed forces. While I admire my daughters for their command of multiple languages, I havn't noticed any particular shift in their "cosmopolitan-ship".

If anything, it is the people one associates with, not the language, per se, that conveys a sort of a cosmopolitan-ship or savoir faire in one's life. Otherwise, it is the mundane acts of getting around in the foreign countryside where language pays off. Unless, that is, one encounters a language snob.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Jul 11, 10:38:00 PM:

In response to Dawnfire:

However, many of those Mandarin speakers also speak English. It's a common anecdote that China technically has more English speakers than the US. Those statistics can only be valid if you are counting *native* speakers.

The percentages are from Sidney Culbert's World Almanac and Book of Facts. Huntington footnotes: His estimates include both "mother-tongue" and "nonmother tongue speakers"...

There's no reason that Americans cannot have the same motive.

Since America occupies a unique spot in the world, a.k.a. Top Dog, our reasons for learning foreign languages can and should be different from everyone else.  

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