Florida: JOHN C. BERSIA: Candidates must push language skills

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jun 5 14:54:49 UTC 2008

JOHN C. BERSIA: Candidates must push language skills
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

TAMPA, Fla. --The U.S. presidential candidates could learn a lesson
from the history of the Ybor City neighborhood, once known as the
Cigar Capital of the World. The district's multicultural background -
which dates from its establishment by businessman Vicente Martinez
Ybor and others in the mid-1880s - underscores the importance of
foreign-language training and knowledge.

Now, the leading candidates certainly have mentioned foreign
languages. On the Democratic side, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois
recently stressed that American students should learn one or two
foreign languages to give them a competitive edge, and U.S. Sen.
Hillary Clinton of New York has long advocated expanding access to
foreign-language courses. The presumptive Republican nominee, U.S.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has expressed his desire to enhance
America's understanding of foreign cultures, as well as to increase
the number of experts in strategic languages such as Arabic. But the
candidates have yet to elevate the matter of foreign-language training
and knowledge to the high priority that it deserves. Nor have they
made such an effort with the related area of foreign policy - from
positions on critical issues to a global strategy - which should be a
deciding factor in the fall election.

Back to Ybor City. Originally, the district was populated mostly by
immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Italy, along with smaller numbers from
other countries. A popular figure in the early days was el lector (the
reader), who helped entertain cigar-makers in factories by reading
aloud from newspapers, magazines and books. Some lectors could scan a
publication in English or Italian and immediately translate it into
Spanish. La Gaceta, a trilingual newspaper started nearly a century
ago, is still published in Tampa.Clearly, knowing more than one
language enabled people to make the most of their Ybor City experience
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Similarly, knowing more than one language enables people to make the
most of their global experiences in the 21st century. Unfortunately,
too many Americans resist the opportunity, believing that English, the
"language of choice," has essentially "won" in the global marketplace.
I would hardly contest English's dominance in business and on the
Internet, not to mention its prominence in diplomacy. But to suggest
that the language game is over and that English has permanently
secured a position at the top ignores reality - especially in an
evolving world of emerging powers.

Besides, there is much more to foreign languages than simply
communication. Most significantly, foreign-language training and
knowledge broaden one's awareness of the world, from history to
culture. That, in turn, promotes understanding and encourages respect
for others; today's tumultuous environment could use more of both. In
addition, the study of foreign languages sharpens one's intellect.
Further, it provides a distinct advantage, facilitating business,
travel, diplomacy, education, cultural exchanges and entertainment
(from films to books).

Thus, the candidates should do more than occasionally visit the
foreign-language question. In a rapidly shrinking, increasingly
interdependent world, Americans should be fluent in at least one other
language. Political leadership, especially at the presidential level,
can make it happen.


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