One nation, not just speaking English

Barack Obama wonders what's up with all those "English-only" whiners. Learn Spanish, already

Published July 8, 2008 7:40PM (EDT)

After a substantial speech decrying the current state of bankruptcy law in the United States, Barack Obama took a few questions from the audience in Powder Springs, Georgia on Tuesday morning. One young woman asked whether there was anything he could do to prevent teenagers from dropping out before they completed high school, and added, almost as an afterthought, that "there should be a push more for our citizens to become bilingual here in America."

Obama first loosened up the crowd with some well-worn jokes about the "brothers" in the audience who were "overrated" in their "own minds" as to their NBA or rap star potential.

"Maybe you are the next Lil Wayne, but probably not, in which case you need to stay in school."

(And people think there are no differences between the two major American parties! Lil Wayne jokes almost never make appearances during McCain town halls.)

Obama then made some routine comments about the importance of better educating young people so as to compete in the global economy. Then he turned to the issue of bilingualism.

You know, 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 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?

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 ajob. 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.

There's nothing particularly exceptional about Obama's position, unless you are an English-only partisan cowering in fear of your cultural identity being swamped by funny-looking people from strange lands. Or one of the similarly insecure patriots who believe any criticism of the U.S. is a sign of "blame-America-first" treachery. And I suppose the whole comment about "going to Europe" opens Obama up to more charges of elitism, and disconnection from the lives of those who, right now, can't afford to even think about going to Europe.

But to most people who actually grasp the fact that we live in a complex, interconnected global economy, being able to speak more than one language just makes a lot of sense. Maybe those of us who do feel threatened by Spanish-language signs in government offices would sleep a little easier if we understood what they they were saying.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Globalization How The World Works