Thursday, August 07, 2008

Obama’s Confused Lingual Policy

Barack Obama recently sent the conservative blogosphere into a tizzy by suggesting that our children should learn how to speak Spanish. It was touted as another nail in the coffin of our Anglo/Christian heritage that so many Americans hold dearly.

Actually, I’m going to give him a little bit of a break. I think our children should learn another language. But I sincerely doubt his motivation and certainly his implication.

To be fair, here’s the quote — in proper context — from Obama as he spoke at a recent campaign event in Georgia:

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 your child can 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”.

At first, Obama appears to chide us into pandering to Hispanic immigrants — telling us we should accommodate their language rather than forcing our own language on them. Then he turns that into a plea for our children to be bilingual. It’s an effective ploy — he is a master of such turn-arounds while stumping on the campaign trail.

But he is missing the point when he compares our language skills to the language skills of Europeans. And I can prove it by asking and answering three simple questions:

Why did I learn Spanish?

To know English better.
I took two years of Spanish while in high school — and a year of French in college. They were some of the most rewarding educational endeavors I have ever done. I learned more about how to conjugate English verbs by conjugating Spanish verbs. I learned more about irregular English words by studying French irregular words. I had a greater understanding, a greater appreciation, and a greater respect for my own language because I learned another language. Sometimes you have to get away from a subject to actually study it.

Why do the Europeans learn English?

Because they have to.
English is the language of law, the language of science, and the language of business. English has become what every French speaker and every Esperantist hoped for their respective languages. It’s the language of the un. It’s the language of the Olympics. It’s the language of nasa. In Europe, every country is the size of one of our Midwestern states. Language barriers abound. Many countries have multiple official languages and dozens of indigenous ones. They need one communicative glue to hold everything together. It may not be the best or most efficient language in the world, but English has become that de facto glue.

Why don’t all Hispanic immigrants learn English?

Because they don’t have to.
I knew we lost the battle the first time I had to press “1” for English at my local atm. I’m reminded of it every time I read the signs in the aisles at Home Depot. (Long ago, I learned that the Spanish word for “exit” is “salida”. How long does it take Hispanics to learn that the English word for “salida” is “exit”?) With bilingual customer service, bilingual menus, and even bilingual ballots, we have accommodated the Spanish-speaking world so much that their incentive to learn English has completely disappeared.

Obama is right, our students should learn a foreign language. They should do it to make themselves better students.

Immigrants to America should also learn a foreign language: English. It’s the glue that holds America together. And it’s the glue that will keep us together unless we choose to dissolve it by accommodating foreigners who refuse to learn it.


Anonymous said...

Your post reflects a basic misunderstanding about Hispanic immigration. Spanish speakers who come to the U.S. ARE learning English; although this is a slower and more difficult process for the first generation, for their children and grandchildren, English is their first language. The reason we offer services in Spanish is to accommodate new immigrants, not because those who have been here for a while can't learn the word 'exit.'

Kim Potowski, Chicago, IL said...

"Their incentive to learn English has completely disappeared"? Have you talked to any immigrants lately? Engaged with your immigrant neighbors, had your kids play with theirs, offered to teach ESL classes at a community center or library? A 2006 study found that 60% of the free ESL programs in 12 states had waiting lists, ranging from a few months in Colorado and Nevada to as long as two years in New Mexico and Massachusetts. More details at

Immigrants' kids become dominant in English, and their grandkids often know no Spanish (or any of the other non-English immigrant languages) at all. The rate of immigrant language shift in this nation is faster than in any other nation -- and it's also actually faster than in past generations.

Fears about immigrants not learning English are often accompanied by what we might call the “my grandparent” myth. It goes something like this: “When my grandparents immigrated from [name of country], they did not need bilingual education or special services in their language. They simply worked hard and learned the language. Today’s immigrants want everything handed to them.” What this sentiment ignores, however, is that life in the 1800s and early 1900s required very little knowledge of English to make a decent wage in the areas of manufacturing where many immigrants worked. High levels of literacy, or even a high school diploma, were not necessary as they are today. It is very likely that this person’s grandparents would be at a much greater disadvantage in the 21st century as immigrants to the U.S. without English abilities.

But in any case, it's perplexing that people think that immigrants can become fluent English speakers overnight. Language learning takes time, as I'm sure you know. And when you work 16 hours a day, it's hard to take those ESL classes that aren't even available.

Anonymous said...

You're also mistaken about Europeans learning English - we learn it through imported music and movies, and yes also in school as a common language.

But you're forgetting Ireland, where students are obliged to learn English, Irish and a modern European language until the age of 16. In the UK, most children also learn a modern European language. Many of my European friends speak 3, 4, 5 languages at a high/fluent standard.

There is more than the practicality of English; there is a deliberate effort to approximate to our neighbours.