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.