Obama's Foreign Policy: Americans Learning Another Language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Jul 14 12:48:59 UTC 2008

Obama's Foreign Policy: Americans Learning Another Language

        During a recent town hall gathering, Barack Obama griped about
how so few Americans speak a foreign language, other than their native
         The presumptive Democratic nominee told a crowd in Powder
Springs, Ga. last week, (in a playful manner, mind you) that ``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!'"
        The Illinois senator proceeded to encourage Americans to learn
Spanish, the same as immigrants coming to the United States should
speak English, a remark that ignited a wave of criticism from
conservative groups who took his comments as a clear call for
bilingualism. English has never been adopted as the official language
of the United States in over 200 years of its history.
        Admittedly, Obama did deserve to be spanked for saying
American parents should make sure their children learn ``Spanish''.
After all, there are more immigrants than just Hispanics flooding U.S.
streets. A growing number of Asians, Russians, and French Creole
(including Haitian Creole speakers), are streaming into the U.S.,
struggling to master the English language, and no one is wagging their
fingers at Americans for not learning those languages.
        But if Mr. Obama's key point was to encourage parents in an
age of globalism and multiculturism to teach their children to become
proficient in mastering a foreign language, if for no other reason
than to gain a competitive edge in an ever-evolving global economy,
than his point is well taken.
        It was just a few years ago, when a U.S. Senate Resolution
designated 2005 as the ``Year of Foreign Language Study'' on the
premise that only nine percent of U.S. citizens can speak another
foreign language proficiently. An embarrassing statistic when you
consider 99 percent of the citizens of Luxembourg, a country much
smaller than the United States, speaks fluently in another foreign
language, according to a European Survey reported by The Associated
        Donald L. Rubin, Professor of Cultural Diversity in the
Department of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia, said
he just returned from India, where there are 25 languages recognized,
and most citizens, even at the lowest rungs of society speak fluently
in at least two and three languages.
        ``Some people fear that to encourage bilingualism is to spell
the doom of the English language, which would undermine a key
foundation of our national identity.  ``Not so.  In fact, it is far
more difficult to retain a non-English speaking culture in the US than
most people realize'', Rubin wrote through an email, who cited a
Princeton University survey which found that over 90 percent of the
grandchildren of Mexican immigrants in the US prefer to speak English
rather than Spanish. The authors of the study estimate that only 5
percent of the great grandchildren of those immigrants will be able to
speak Spanish.
           ``We need bilingual education not only to enhance English
abilities among nonnative speakers, Rubin wrote, but also to keep from
losing all our Spanish speakers''
         But Americans are making encouraging progress in speaking
more than one language, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study, which
reports 47 million people or 18 percent of the total population,
speaks more than one language at home, an increase of 14 percent from
1990. The Census Bureau additionally reports other than Spanish, the
sharpest increase in foreign language speakers in the U.S. is Chinese,
which jumped from 1.2 million speakers to 2 million from 10 years ago.
Spanish speakers grew approximately 60 percent from 1990, while the
largest proportional foreign language increase was in Russian, which
tripled, from 242,000 to 706,000
         There is, however, some question from academics how
proficient Americans reported from the Census Bureau really are in
speaking foreign languages, other than being able to spit out a few
popular conversational foreign phrases.
         Still, interest in mastering a foreign language has shown a
significant increase at colleges and universities. In November , The
Modern Language Association, reported foreign language enrollment to
be at its highest level since 1960, and his been growing steadily
since 1998. The languages showing significant increases were Arabic
(up 127%), Chinese (up 51%), and Korean (up 37%).  In fact, for the
first time, Arabic now ranks as one of the top ten languages being
studied at higher education institutions, according to the survey.
         But whether U.S. citizens embrace (and learn) foreign
languages as the country absorbs immigrants at unprecedented levels,
while reaping benefits from acquiring proficiency in a language other
than their own, the howls from a large slice of the country, annoyed
by the suggestion they're being forced to learn another language,
particularly Spanish, will undoubtedly continue well into the 21st
         Not only is it embarrassing that so few US citizens speak a
second language, Professor Rubin told me, ``it may be down-right
             -Bill Lucey


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