Obama and McCain on bilingualism and other topics

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Jul 11 13:08:10 UTC 2008

July 11, 2008

The Candidates Speak Off the Cuff, and Trouble Quickly Follows


At this rate, both John McCain and Barack Obama may want to rethink
their fondness for town-hall-style meetings. Both have embroiled
themselves in controversies this week as a result of departing from
scripted campaign speeches and speaking off the cuff. Start with Mr.
Obama. Answering a question that touched on bilingualism at one such
forum in Powder Springs, Ga., on Tuesday, he said, "I agree that
immigrants should learn English." But then he went on to poke fun at
those who argue that "we need English only" and Americans who "go over
to Europe, and all we can say is 'merci beaucoup.' "

"Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English —
they'll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak
Spanish," he said. "You should be thinking about how can your child
become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one
language." Mr. Obama's comments were a slight variation on a theme
that he regularly sounds in his stump speech: the need for young
Americans to be able to compete in a globalized economy with their
counterparts around the world. He often accompanies that with
criticism of school districts that have reduced or eliminated elective
offerings, like foreign language instruction, because of budget

Conservative and "official English" groups immediately interpreted Mr.
Obama's statement as an endorsement of the idea that "Americans should
be forced to learn to speak Spanish," in the words of the Americans
for Legal Immigration PAC. But that not only misrepresents what Mr.
Obama said, it also ignores the views he has expressed in the past on
the proper role of English and foreign languages in American life.

In his book "The Audacity of Hope" (Crown, 2006), Mr. Obama writes
that "we can insist to those already here that with citizenship comes
obligations — to a common language," among other things. But even as
he said he wanted his daughters to learn Spanish, he also
acknowledged: "When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration
demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When
I'm forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my
car, I feel a certain frustration."

In many respects, Mr. Obama's remarks echoed the Department of
Education's own position on the importance of learning foreign
languages. "American students must master critical-need foreign
language skills for our nation to remain competitive and continue the
progress in securing our nation," the department's Web site states.

That policy statement also draws a contrast between China, where
studying English is compulsory for all primary school students, and
the United States, where less than one quarter of public elementary
schools report teaching foreign languages. One remedy, the statement
suggests, is President Bush's National Security Language Initiative,
parts of which Congress has approved.

Bret Lovejoy, executive director of the American Council on the
Teaching of Foreign Languages, which represents some 11,000
foreign-language teachers across the country, said the group was
"thrilled" that Mr. Obama raised the issue. "It's common sense, what
he said," Mr. Lovejoy said, "because many Americans feel they don't
need to learn another language, and that is a dangerous mindset in
today's world."




 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138

Email: haroldfs at gmail.com


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