Noah (and Herder) on Obama on Language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jul 16 14:04:04 UTC 2008

Noah (and Herder) on Obama on Language

So yesterday, Noah Millman--who has been, at the least, intrigued by
Senator Obama's presidential campaign, as I think any intelligent
person ought to be--came out swinging hard against a brief comment the
man made during a campaign stop in Georgia. The substance of his
comment was, simply, that more Americans should strive to learn
another language, and in particular we should, as a nation (and as
parents and teachers), try to ensure that our children are learning
some Spanish. You can listen to his comments here (that seems to be
how most people are learning about them), but here's the actual

I don't understand when people are going around saying, "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 can your child
become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one
language. 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, right?

For a variety of reasons--a couple of which I respect, but others of
which I just find silly--this comment really ticked Noah off, and he
unloads on Obama. Well, allow me to unload back:

Noah says--
We do not want a formally bilingual America. We don't! I can think of
only one clearly successful multilingual polity--Switzerland--and it's
an exceptional society in almost every way. Bilingualism is an
inescapable historical fact in Canada and Belgium, and as such it is
appropriately a political fact as well, but any argument that it has
been beneficial would be very strained. And there are plenty of
countries with distinct linguistic minorities--Spain, Israel,
China--and others with no real linguistic majority--India, South
Africa--but in neither case would anyone say that these are optimal
situations. The optimal situation from almost every perspective is to
have a national language that everyone acknowledges and speaks.

I completely agree with the Noah here...but then I also completely
agree with the senator? How is that possible? Well, for one, as a
couple of commenters on Noah's post have pointed out, what Noah is
attacking in his first point isn't anything Obama actually said. He
wasn't calling for a "formally bilingual America" in this little riff;
all he was doing was 1) condemning what he sees as a kind of paranoia
behind the "English Only" movement, and 2) making a jab at a kind of
stereotypical American parochialism, in that we don't seem to be too
concerned about our lack of knowledge of other languages. Pretty
straightforward, yes?

But of course, Noah is a thoughtful man, and this first point of
his--the most important one in his whole post--deserves a thoughtful
response. And my response would be two-fold:

First, I agree agree with him: if one has a choice, bilingualism is to
be avoided. I say this for pedagogical reasons (more about that
below), for political reasons (having to do with the civic element
which comes along with any proper education, an accommodation and
teaching about civic life in America--or any nation--which will be
inevitably complicated and perhaps even compromised if it has to be
conducted in more languages that one shared one), and for
philosophical reasons as well. I'm both a student and an admirer of
J.G. Herder, and he of course is well known as advocating a kind of
cultural--or more particularly a linguistic nationalism, and position
I find intellectually important and not a little morally persuasive.
I've written about this professionally a couple of times and on both
this and my old blog before as well--in that latter case, specifically
addressing and somewhat defending Samuel Huntington's concerns about
the "Hispanic challange" to America's national identity, particularly
in regards to his belief that, because of the particular historical
products of this country's "Anglo-Protestant" culture, Mexicans and
other immigrants to the U.S. "will share in [the American] dream
and...society only if they dream in English."

So--am I changing my mind? Not really, I don't think. My defense of
Huntington's ideas was more an attack on some clumsy attacks upon it,
coming from the likes of David Brooks and others. There is a weakness
and a xenophobia present in his arguments (and even more so in many of
the "English Only" claims which Obama was mocking), but dismissing his
concerns as irrelevant and outdated in our globalized, cosmopolitan,
supposedly post-national world doesn't do the trick. As I wrote then:
"The English language spoken in the U.S. is by no means the sum total
of American identity, but it is a vital part of it. America is a whole
lot more than an 'Anglo-Protestant' culture, but that doesn't mean
that specific heritage can be completely dispensed in understanding
how it is that our country perpetuates itself either. Assimilation, in
one sense or another, is a real issue, and a hard one, and easily
disregarded by universalists of one stripe or another on both sides.
When folks like Brooks say that being an American just boils down to
having 'a common conception of the future,' he's dealing in platitudes
that make it easier for xenophobes to justify themselves. And when
folks like Huntington impose rigid civilizational lines on complicated
questions like, for example, language assimilation, it makes it easier
for liberals to think that 'culture' needn't mean anything at all."

Herder is, I think, a pretty good guide to these complicated matters,
and while I'd hardly take it upon myself to give reading advice to
brilliant guy like Noah, I would suggest that he give his writings a
chance; there's a lot to be gained from this late 18th-century cleric,
critic and philosopher's ideas, especially regarding language. Forgive
me for quoting myself again, this time from one of the articles linked
to up above:

[A] Herderian reading of the relationship between language and
nationality is "conservative" in some assumes that national
communities have an enduring place in the moral structure of the world
and argues that said nations should acknowledge the necessity of
maintaining a dominant linguistic field, for the sake of perpetuating
the meaning which a people may culturally realize within their group.
Herder's communitarian vision thus suggests that a choice-driven
policy of bi- or multilingualism is greatly limited in its ability to
transform or shape the realization of a people's affective identity,
because it ignores or distorts the context by which we are
aesthetically brought into a sense of belonging....But Herder's
understanding of language and identity would also seem to have
"progressive" elements as well, in that it denies the value of
specific linguistic forms apart from their always fluid use and
adaptation by the people who discover the content of their identity
through them....[T]he idea that changes in language will necessarily
lead to the "demoralization" of a nation is far removed from Herder's
philosophy. ["J.G. Herder on Language and the Metaphysics of National
Community," The Review of Politics, Spring 2003, 255-256]

For all his ferocious and philosophically informed defense of the
German Volk and their way of speaking, for all his contempt for
cosmopolitanism, Herder never saw any good reason not to be acquainted
with other fact, he thought a fuller appreciation of
one's own tradition would only come through a greater awareness of how
other traditions are articulated. He made this pretty clear in his
early work, On Diligence in Several Learned Languages: "How little
progress we would have made, were each nation to strive for
learnedness by itself, confined within the narrow sphere of [its]
language?" This isn't linguistic imperialism; this is saying that
languages deserve respect, and that means teaching one's own properly,
as way of making possible the sort of growth and judgment which comes
from learning other languages as well. And if time and circumstances
make certain kinds of growth and judgment more important to and
incumbent upon responsible citizens than others, than plainly, that's
where one's efforts ought to go. Which leads me to...

Second, we Americans probably are not going to have too much of choice
in these matters. A--if not wholly, than at least
significantly--bilingual America is on its way; in some parts of the
country, its already here. The Spanish language (and here feel free to
blame and/or praise immigration or demographics or any combination
thereof you please) is shaping, bit by bit, large swaths of America's
popular culture, dress, religion, diet, and more; and that influence
will likely only increase further in the years and decades to come.
The American southwest and Florida are not really Quebec yet, and for
historical and political reasons almost certainly never will be...but
so long as we're talking about education and the value of bilingualism
and the long-term here, we might as well be cognizant of the
significantly Hispanicized America which is on our horizon. In the
18th and 19th centuries, there were German nationalists who thought
that the Dutch republic was a scandal that never should have been
allowed to get out of the German cultural orbit; Herder thought such
folks were ridiculous: there was a new Volk out there, one to engage
and learn from. America ought to do the same with the Spanish-speakers
among us and south of us just the same. That's not an invitation to "a
formally bilingual America"; that's treating the cultures around us,
and the need America has, as an English-speaking country, comprehend
what they are and what they can reflect back to us, with respect.

Okay, that was good enough for a post all on its own. Let me try to
run through the rest of Noah's post quickly:

Noah says--
English-speaking peoples don't learn a second language. It's a weird
but true fact.

Well, actually he's probably correct here. Because of English's global
dominance in areas of mass (especially electronic) communication, high
finance, and scientific exchanges, there are very few cost-beneficial
reasons for English-speakers to branch out. And perhaps there are
deeper linguistic/cultural factors in play as well. But how is that a
normative claim? A practical warning not to indulge in pie-in-the-sky
hopes that we'll all become linguistic cosmopolitans
overnight--Herderian and communitarian that I am, I wouldn't want that
anyway--but a reason not to encourage the study of foreign languages?
Doesn't seem to cut it to me.

Noah says--
Spanish is good for basically two things. First, communicating with
immigrant neighbors, employees or clients. Unless we are aiming to
create a permanently bilingual America--and we shouldn't be--there is
no reason for our strapped primary schools to be paying for this; you
can get a perfectly good working knowledge of everyday Spanish without
studying it in school....Second, learning any second language is good
for expanding one's cultural and intellectual horizons, gaining
perspective on how one's own primary language shapes one's thoughts,
and so forth. But this is, relatively speaking, a luxury good. For
your average student, it's much more important that they understand
the concept of compound interest than that they learn Spanish.

All well and good (though I think more than a few students of Spanish
and/or aficionados of one or another aspect of Mexican culture might
want to question how he frames the "usefulness" of Spanish); I suppose
I can't fundamentally disagree with any of this. But even allowing
what Noah says in his first claim, he's still not really disputing the
"ought" in Obama's rather prosaic and offhand statement; he's now
merely detailing the marginal costs and benefits of doing so. Which
are certainly worth looking at--Obama is, of course, speaking as a
potential president, and hence a setter of priorities and budgets--but
such side concerns are not particularly on his real point.

Noah says--
Whatever one might think of it in theory, in practice, bilingual
education is a massive boondoggle that hurts immigrant children.

I agree: making certain people have, insofar as possible, a shared and
sufficient grounding in a single language before--or concomitant
to--branching out into other areas of study is crucial. Throwing kids
into a school system where basic math is taught in this classroom in
Spanish as part of an "immersion" is moronic. But urging everyone to
learn a foreign language--in the context of thus discussion
presumably, though I guess not necessarily, Spanish--isn't the same as
bilingual education: it just means getting the foreign language there
in the curriculum.

Noah says--
[W]hat does this have to do with being President of the United States?
Why is this wish even remotely on the list? If I thought this was some
indication that Obama thought tougher education of the American elite
needed to be a higher Federal priority, that would be an interesting
development. But it isn't. It's just intellectual luftmenschtichkeit.

Oh sure, Noah, condemn the man for encouraging the study of foreign
languages, and finish it off by displaying some of your
erudite-and-perhaps-completely-unique German/Hebrew/Yiddish/whatever.

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