[lg policy] Should the US president be able to speak foreign languages?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Nov 2 14:31:31 UTC 2011

Should the president be able to speak foreign languages?
Posted By Joshua Keating Tuesday, November 1, 2011 - 6:08 PM Share


    When asked on the Colbert Report to speak Chinese, Huntsman spoke
one sentence and then “translated” his words as “I just said you ought
to consider being my running mate for vice president.” The studio
audience roared in approval. Yet in reality, Huntsman’s mangled
Chinese would translate as: “I really want you to do my vice-America

    In this brief and simple sentence, Huntsman managed to
(incorrectly) insert the word America in the middle of the Chinese
word for vice president (fu-zong-tong); made a less-than-ideal choice
of verbs; and combined my and American vice president in a way that
implies (in Chinese) that Huntsman possesses his own personal vice
president of the United States.

    On Piers Morgan Tonight, Piers Morgan asked Huntsman to speak in
Mandarin, and then immediately proclaimed what he heard as
“spectacularly good” despite not understanding any of it. (As Huntsman
himself responded, “How do you know?”)

    A fair translation of Huntsman’s Chinese response to Piers Morgan
would be: “Whatever I say, you don’t, you won’t know that much, you
will not be so able to understand. I am Mr. Jon Huntsman. I want to be
the up-to-next American president.”

Just judging by those translations, it sounds like Huntsman could make
himself understood, even if his grammar was off. He might be
exaggerating his abilities a bit, but I suspect that most Americans
who have ever claimed knowledge of language they haven't studied since
high school on a resume can sympathize. It also begs the question of
whether this is really a critical skill to begin with.

If he were elected, Huntsman's actual use of Mandarin would likely be
limited to telepromptered speeches. Chinese audiences might get a kick
out of this, but does anyone really think that if Huntsman spoke the
language perfectly, Xi Jinping would be so impressed that he'd forgive
America's debts and let the yuan float on the spot?

George W. Bush's relatively decent Spanish didn't really win him many
friends in Latin America, nor did Condoleezza Rice's knowledge of
Russian really seem to do much for the administration's dealings with
the Kremlin. When Barack Obama became president, the French media
snootily noted that "he doesn't speak any foreign languages (except
Indonesian)," but I don't think that if he had put in some more time
conjugating French verbs his foreign policy would be significantly
more effective.

Thinking about this did lead me to the impressively detailed Wikipedia
entry on multilingual presidents. Did you know that Martin Van Buren
is the only president for whom English was not a first language? (He
grew up in a Dutch-speaking community in Kinderhook, New York.) Or
that Herbert Hoover was fluent in Chinese, having spent time in China
as a young mining engineer? Or that Jimmy Carter read the Bible in
Spanish for practice? This doesn't seem to have played a great role in
any of their presidencies, but interesting nonetheless.


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