Barack Obama's remarks on "your kids" needing to learn Spanish (referring to people who support some form of "english-only" initiative) is of a piece with his previous gaffes. It was an off the cuff moment which, notwithstanding his hard tack to the right once the nomination was clinched. reflects his rather standard left-liberal predispositions. He doesn't like initiatives, such as english-only curriculum which might increase the english capabilities of immigrants. He waves off, as he so often does, the consequences of this form of "compassion." "They'll learn English," he says."
There is also a sense in which he has once again come across as a condescending Ivy-leaguer. He hates the fact that "we" go to France and all we can say is "Merci Beaucoup." Everyone laughs. They can remember struggling with the menu in Cannes.
Now I think learning a foreign language is a great thing. I have a little German and one of the things I'd like to do, if I had more time, is become fluent or, perhaps, to pick up some French or Italian. For me, it will have little professional applicability but would be enriching.
And that brings me to the first thing that Obama's remarks miss. The reason that we don't place more emphasis on teaching foreign languages (although most kids wind up taking a few years of it) is that, for most of us, it's not necessary.
The fact is that you can go to France and do quite nicely speaking only English. I have represented a client in purchasing companies in Denmark and Germany. We negotiated and wrote the agreements in English. I can call almost any law firm in Europe and talk to a receptionist, much less a lawyer, who can speak very passable English.
It is difficult - particularly later in life - to learn a foreign language. You are far more likely to do it if you have to and you are immersed in a context in which it is the only thing spoken. "They'll learn English?" Well, maybe not if they can get by without it, however much it might keep them from more significant advancement.
The second thing Obama misses is reflected in his admoniton to all of us to learn Spanish.
Why? If the point is to be able to speak to newcomers who can't speak English, then his problem with our monolinguism is that we won't accommodate newcomers who want to retain their native tongue.
That's very different than the motivation that has compelled so many Europeans to learn English. It is not to accomodate immigrants. (They'd need to learn Arabic to do that.) It is because English has increasingly become a common second language and is often used to conduct international business.
There may certainly be value to learning Spanish in a globalized world, but Chinese or Russian or even Arabic might be better choices.
Having gaffed again, Obama embarked on his customary backtrack. "All I was doing is advocating learning another language. That's a good thing."
Sure it is. But his purpose in saying it was to dismiss initiatives that might help immigrants have the same advantages as the French and Danes. His example of bilingual Europeans makes a point just the opposite of what he intended.