Do As I Say (Updated)

Sen. Obama has been raising the issue of learning foreign languages:

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?

Tom Maguire makes many of the relevant points.

I’m a language junkie. I’m fluent in several and conversant in a number of others. But for Americans that’s a hobby and an eccentricity not a necessity. Many Americans can travel 1,000 miles in any direction and not find that even their knowledge of Spanish (or any other language other than English) is particularly useful to them, other than in communicating with workmen they may employ.

It’s very different in continental Europe. When I was living and working in Germany I once made a wrong turn on the autobahn and ended up in Belgium. Different countries and their languages are very short distances among one another. Some conversance with multiple languages is a survival skill. The incentives are different.

Sen. Kerry spoke French because he had attended school in Switzerland and was required to achieve reasonable fluency. President Bush’s Spanish has been mocked by some but he speaks it reasonably well after the fashion of Texans. Sen. Obama speaks a little childhood Indonesian and a little high school Spanish. For practical purposes he’s monolingual. I’ve seen no evidence that he’s literate in any language other than English.

I’m concerned about an America in which more than a single language is spoken for the simple reason that I prefer an egalitarian America. I know of no country in the entire world in which multiple languages are spoken and speakers of one of them don’t have social and economic dominance over the others. Many people point to Switzerland, in which four languages are spoken: German, French, Italian, Romansch. There’s no doubt that not only do German speakers have advantages over Romansch speakers but hoch deutsch speakers have advantages over schwyzertütsch speakers.

If we have persistent Spanish-speaking communities in the United States that aren’t geographically isolated from neighboring Engish-speaking communities, they aren’t going to be equal. That’s not malice it’s just a statement of fact. It’s that way everywhere and I see no reason that we’ll be the exception. The opposite if anything.


Arabic language student Blake Hounshell, the blogger formerly known as praktike, makes essentially the point that I’m making above without the sociology:

But my inner behavioral economist tells me that Obama has identified a solution in search of a problem. After all, Americans are just behaving rationally. Europeans need to learn foreign languages because they live much closer to one another, are more integrated economically, and come from smaller countries. If you’re a young Swede, for instance, you need to learn English to be employable. As for romance languages, once you’re fluent in French, it’s relatively easy to pick up Spanish and Italian.

Most Americans, in contrast, don’t really need to learn a foreign language: Many foreigners speak English, and the amount of bilingual jobs available is relatively small. It’s a nice skill to have, but acquiring working-level fluency in a second or third language is expensive and time consuming, and often the potential payoff isn’t worth it.

15 comments… add one
  • It looks to me as if you are conflating assimilation with the study of foreign languages. Totally different topics.

    Further (and related) — “an America in which more than a single language is spoken” is not at all the same as studying second (or more) languages. As you should know well from your own studies, mastery of one’s primary language is a necessity before one can expand with any depth at all.

    Finally — are you seriously arguing against foreign language study in the US because you object to the advantages it brings?

  • No, Polimom. I think that studying foreign languages is a good thing because of the difference in thinking it conveys but I think we should be studying Mandarin, Arabic, and Russian. Again, not because we’re likely to converse with Mandarin, Arabic, or Russian speakers but because it will enrich out understanding of speakers of Mandarin, Arabic, and Russian.

    Most Americans don’t travel. The only reason to learn Spanish for most Americans is to converse with other people here. The context of Sen. Obama’s comments, cited in the Salon article, was official English. The title of the article after all is “One nation, not just speaking English”. I’m disposed favorably towards official English for the reasons mentioned above.

  • Phew! You scared me there for a minute, Dave. I seriously felt the earth shift, so thanks for responding!

    I agree about Mandarin and Arabic (and others), although with the caveat that one cannot, generally, launch into a Level IV language without first studying a Level I or II. Furthermore, some folks simply cannot master a Level IV (or even a III). Kinda like how my mind simply wouldn’t absorb calculus. LOL!

    But foreign languages have wider applications than cultural insights or chatting up the tourists. The global economy is not going to reverse its inevitable expansion. Without foreign languages (doesn’t matter which), we’re not going to be on a level playing field. More and more companies will be looking for people who can be deployed to other offices (whether for crisis / project management, scouting for a home office, etc), or interact with employees from elsewhere. It isn’t just about travel.

  • As I’ve mentioned before here I’m a native speaker of English. I learned a smattering of German along with my English. I studied French from ages 10 through 13. Then Latin (4 years), Greek (2 years), Russian (eight years), Mandarin (2 years). Polish, Ukrainian, Serbian, and Croation are sufficiently close to Russian that I can read in all of those languages pretty well. I can read Italian reasonably well. I’ve picked up a smattering of Hungarian (an extremely easy language to learn), Hebrew, and Japanese.

    When I was studying Mandarin I formulated a formal grammar of it for a project which astounded my professors in its completeness.

    I’m trying to work up the time and energy to teach myself Arabic.

    When I took the foreign service language tests (a lifetime ago) they got pretty excited. I was told they’d never had a higher score. As I say, I’m a language junkie.

    The key point, made by Tom Maguire, is that English is the entire world’s second language. It is and undoubtedly will remain the language of aerospace, medicine, and computing.

  • Hmm. Well, despite his own semi-monolingualism, he may have a point. As the center of the world economic stage, you’re right, there was no financial incentive to reward taking on a new language. But the global economy is becoming multi-polar, so that may be changing.

    And Mandrin? Nah, Cantonese.

  • Mandrin above s.b. Mandarin.

  • PD Shaw Link

    America can obtain the necessary linguistic skill set for the world economy through immigration.

  • I think for the U.S. to stay competitive in a global marketplace and to continue to be considered leaders we do need to start becoming bi-lingual. We have been very complacent and lazy – because everyone else was kind enough to spend years learning our language. For better business and political relations it is time to do our part. I think Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin are essential these days and anyone who knows these languages fluently has so many more opportunities than a typical monolingual American.

    Great post!

    Beverly Cornell

  • “The key point, made by Tom Maguire, is that English is the entire world’s second language. It is and undoubtedly will remain the language of aerospace, medicine, and computing.”

    Among the elite researchers with Phds, this is certainly true. It is not necessarily true anymore in the boardrooms of corporations, or in the middle tiers of management in most companies. It depends on where you are and who you are dealing with.

    I was in Japan last month, and I met Chinese engineers who spoke fluent Japanese, but barely a word of English. Meanwhile, more and more Asians (Thais, Vietnamese, etc.) are learning Mandarin instead of English. They see China as more relevant to their future than the U.S. or Europe.

    In Brazil, Spanish is a more common second language than English.

    The business world is no longer dominated by the U.S., and this means that other languages will be more relevant. This is happening to a certain degree even in technical research. A lot of engineering work is being done in China these days, and only a fraction of it is translated into English.

    English will remain the default second language in Europe well through the end of this century, I think. In other parts of the world, however, we already can see the rise of regional lingua francas. This is especially true in Asia and Latin America.

    The global primacy of English arose from certain historic factors (America’s role as the only superpower in the Free World during the postwar period). As the world changes, the relative influence of competing languages will change also. This will probably mean that English will increasingly share the spotlight with other lingua francas in the coming decades.

  • I don’t know what your experience is, Edward, but my experience (as noted in my post this morning) is that U. S. companies are more likely to hire native speakers of a foreign language when they want speakers of that language than they are to hire native English speakers who also speak that language. I’d be interested to know that this is changing.

    In the mists of the distant past when I was interviewing for jobs nobody ever asked or was interested in the languages I spoke. It came in handy for me but it never lead directly to my getting a job.

  • Dave:

    My perspective is a bit different because I have always worked for Japanese companies. I presently work for one of the big Japanese automakers. Japanese language proficiency is more or less a requirement for employees who want to be posted in Japan at my company’s headquarters. (Japanese is not a requirement for jobs at their branches outside Japan, of course.)

    During my last business trip, I attended meetings at a number of suppliers in Japan (in the automotive field) and the conversations were 100% in Japanese. There was no discussion of “which language should we speak?”–Japanese was just assumed. (And I wasn’t the only American there.)

    When I go to Japan, I meet many Americans who speak Japanese at levels needed for business, and this is now (almost) the norm. At the very least, no one over there is particually surprised anymore to find that a Westerner speaks their language well.

    When I started out (around 1990) U.S. companies typically gave bilingual Americans little attention. The situation is quite different today. I have been approached by a number of U.S. automotive components manufacturers (via headhunters) over the past 5~10 years who are looking for an automotive area specialist who speaks Japanese. (Of course, at this point I have almost 20 years of experience in my field—so they are also looking at that.)

    I don’t know the situation for Americans who are bilingual in languages like French or German. I suspect that they may face a lot more competition from native speakers of these languages.

  • Mamie Stimpson Link

    Every country has a standard language, then all others are secondary. Why should the US be any different? If we have to adopt all the different languages that encompuses this nation, it would be confusing and convoluted. I am semi-bilingual in Spanish (meaning I could use more practice), but I feel we must have a standard language; being English, so that we all will eventually be able to communicate on the same level. Our country was founded on the English language, so it should be so!

    I have no problem in having a second language courses in the Elementary and Middle School levels, in order for children in the US to have a chance at being bilingual. However, it could be French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, or Russian, it would be up to the parents and the student. This also would depend upon the State School Boards of Education, and how they will approach language, and have teachers available. It does not hurt to have more than one language, but we must have a standard language so all who are concerned, can come to some common ground.

    This could be a type of unity and equality for all in this nation!

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