Fluent in Politics, but Will It Translate?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Jun 17 16:06:36 UTC 2007

June 17, 2007
The Basics

Fluent in Politics, but Will It Translate?


Hablas espaol? That was a question raised when the presidential candidates
recently were invited to debate on Univision, the nations fifth-largest
television network and the top Spanish-language outlet. Two Democrats
quickly accepted: Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Senator
Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, and for good reason. Theyre the only
two who speak Spanish fluently. With the United States growing more
diverse, and the world pushed closer by globalization, fluency in a second
language might not be a bad job skill for a president.

Other leaders have found it useful. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor,
and Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, speak each others language,
she from growing up in East Germany, he from K.G.B. work. Tony Blair, the
departing British prime minister, speaks French. Most Middle Eastern heads
of state speak English. So can any of the other 16 people who have set up
presidential exploratory committees speak a language other than English?
Yes, though only a few, according to a survey of the campaigns. All but
the campaigns of Rudolph W. Giuliani responded.

Three say they speak French: Mr. Richardson, a former ambassador to the
United Nations; Mitt Romney, a former Republican governor of
Massachusetts; and Mike Gravel, a Democrat and former Alaskan senator. Mr.
Romney learned the language as a Mormon missionary. Mr. Gravel grew up in
a French-Canadian household. Jim Gilmore, a former Republican governor of
Virginia, says he speaks German. He was stationed in Germany as an Army
counterintelligence officer.

Then there is Mike Huckabee, a former Republican governor of Arkansas. He
cant speak another language, but says he can read Greek, which he studied
to become a Baptist pastor. Of all languages other than English, though,
Spanish would seem to be the one best suited to the nations political mix.
Hispanics are the largest minority group in the United States, about 15
percent of the population, and the fastest-growing one, though voter
registration and turnout rates are lower than for blacks and whites.
Several states with large Hispanic populations, including Florida,
California and New York, have moved up their primaries.

Mr. Richardson, the only Hispanic candidate, grew up speaking Spanish. Mr.
Dodd picked it while in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. Two
potential candidates are studying Spanish, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New
York and Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House. On a
recent trip to Mexico, the mayor fielded questions from reporters and
responded in passable Spanish. Mr. Gingrich, who was criticized recently
for equating bilingual education with teaching the language of living in a
ghetto, later apologized in Spanish, saying his word choice was poor and
he wasnt attacking the language.

Senator Barack Obama, a Democrat from Illinois, attempted Spanish last
year when he delivered his partys Spanish-language radio address. But his
Spanish is limited, and the taping of the speech was tedious, the Chicago
Tribunes political blog reported.



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[Comment: the author of this article apparently doesn't remember that
Obama speaks Indonesian.  (HS)]

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