Barack Obama on bilingualism in the United States / Barack Obama habla sobre bilingüismo en los Estados Unidos

Thursday, July 10, 2008

There's a video of Barack Obama talking about bilingualism today:

Here's the full text:

I don't understand when people are going around worrying about "we need to have English only". They want to pass a law - we want just, 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.

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." Right?

(this part is after the video here) You know, no, I'm serious about this. We should understand that our young people, if you have a foreign language, that is a powerful tool to get a job. You are so much more employable. You can be part of international business. So we should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age, because children will actually learn a foreign language easier when they're 5, or 6, or 7 than when they're 46, like me.

Seems reasonable. Bilingualism is a good skill, Spanish is the best and easiest 2nd language for an American to learn, Europeans are really good at other languages including English when they come here so Americans should have an open mind towards other languages and later on when they travel to places like Europe they'll be able to speak beyond a few simple greetings. Makes sense, right?

Some people don't agree though. Here's one post for example.

Well, which is it — should we teach them Spanish or French? Maybe we should teach them Chinese, or perhaps Arabic. Immigrants come from around the world to live in America. Perhaps Obama doesn’t realize this, but they don’t all speak Spanish. If our children have to learn foreign languages so that immigrants feel at home here, then we’d better plan on keeping them in school for about 30 years.

Also, Obama’s argument here makes no sense. He’s complaining that Americans don’t speak the native language when we visit Europe, but that we don’t speak the immigrant language when people move to the United States. With that argument, shouldn’t we expect Europeans to speak English when we travel there?

  1. Spanish and/or French, depending on the state you're from. Chinese and Arabic are waaay harder than two related languages like Spanish and French.
  2. No, he's saying that the US has a demographic situation where people are able to easily learn a language like Spanish as a second language, so take advantage of this, warm up to bilingualism, and when you go to other countries like Spain/Mexico/Panama etc. you'll be much better prepared.
Foreign Policy makes a more reasoned argument about the comparative value of a foreign language vs. spending the time learning other skills:
Most Americans, in contrast, don't really need to learn a foreign language: Many foreigners speak English, and the amount of bilingual jobs available is relatively small. It's a nice skill to have, but acquiring working-level fluency in a second or third language is expensive and time consuming, and often the potential payoff isn't worth it. My seven years of French has never been very useful, frankly, and I might have been better served learning more about microbiology or fluid dynamics.
I agree that not each and every person needs to learn a second language, and that some people just don't like them, or are very busy with other things and simply don't have a need for a second language. I would also add though that second languages are not useful simply for being able to use them with people that speak the language; when learning and learning about languages such as Spanish and French one is also able to gain quite an insight into English and how it has evolved over time, which gives you a better intuition for English as well. This all depends on the quality of the teacher and curriculum though, and how well it makes the point that French / Spanish / what have you are very related to English, and this is why.

Case in point: when I was in elementary we went through the standard three years of French in school from grades 4 to 6, and then after doing it in grade 7 I stopped taking it in grade 8 because I just didn't like it. I don't remember at the time ever being given the impression that French was anything besides the language that people in Quebec speak, and that if you want to work in the government you should speak it. Hm, a language spoken in one province, and if I want to work as a bureaucrat I should learn it. I think I'll pass. This is because French class never addressed how long England spent under French (Norman) influence, how English was a completely different language before that, that French is spoken on five continents and helps you to learn other languages as well, and so on.

In short, language class is often bereft of passion and context. Passion for languages and what they can do for you both in your native language and careerwise, and context so that students are well aware that French isn't just a language from Quebec, and Spanish isn't just the language that immigrants in the south of the country speak.

Finally, I was able to find a blog post that had the text of Barack Obama's comment in Spanish:
"No puedo entender cuando la gente va por ahí preocupada y diciendo que tenemos que tener sólo inglés. Quieren aprobar una ley 'queremos sólo inglés'. Bien, estoy de acuerdo en que los inmigrantes deben aprender inglés, estoy de acuerdo, pero en lugar de preocuparte de que los inmigrantes aprendan inglés, que ellos lo harán, asegúrate de que tu hijo puede hablar español. Deberías pensar acerca de cómo conseguir que tu hijo sea bilingüe, deberíamos conseguir que todos los chicos hablaran más de una lengua. En vergonzoso que cuando los europeos vienen aquí, todos hablan inglés, hablan francés, hablan alemán... y luego nosotros vamos allí y lo único que sabemos decir es merci beaucoup."


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