American Unilingualism

barack_obama.jpgIn a town hall meeting in Georgia, Barack Obama said, “American parents should insist that their children learn other languages. It is embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, French and German. When Americans go to Europe, all we can say is, ‘Merci Beaucoup.’”

Criticism leveled against Senator Obama for his statement, comes mostly from conservative elements who equate nationalistic pride with sustaining English as America’s primary language. Even Rudolph Guiliani, former mayor of NYC and considered Liberal by conservative republicans, suggested that making English the national language “will keep America uniquely American”. This misses the point that multilingualism proposes and represents.

langmap.gifMany countries (click on thumbnail at right to view full scale language chart), where foreign languages are spoken, are often well versed in English, American history and society because they realize the advantage of knowing how we think from our point of view, which also conveys our weaknesses. Nationals of these multilingual countries have a better sense of who they are dealing with by spending time learning our culture, inherently expressed in language. This gives them an advantage in any negotiations that occur, whether economic, political, social or creative. The military and financial dominance of the United States in the post-war period encouraged this.

International business decisions are often determined by intangible factors inherent in a culture, distinctly implied in its language. Knowing how to relate in a foreign tongue, specially in competitive multi-national situations, could tip the balance to a particular side. Relying on translation by interpreters inevitably misses important subtle information not only for businessmen, but also politicians searching for additional ways to understand the intentions of adversaries or allies, first hand. Images, perceptions and insights can be effected by linguistic differences, enough to cause misunderstanding when translated from one language to another. Even the richness of artistic expression such as poetry and literature can best be comprehended as the artist intended if read in its native tongue.

The Democratic ideals of American society, expressed in our historical documents, is not enough to justify the notion that this is the greatest country in the world that has less to learn from other cultures than they have from us. This attitude only reinforces the international perception that Americans are condescending and self absorbed, expecting other countries to do things on our terms. The percentage of foreign businessmen who speak English is far greater than American businessmen who speak Japanese, Chinese, German, French or Russian, to name a few. This is also true of politicians. It gives them greater leverage intuiting American motivations than we of them.

Immigrants to the U.S. should be encouraged to learn English, just as immigrants in France should become versed in French or Spanish in Spain. However, the place for this lies within the scope of education, a cultural necessity that is not held as highly in this country as it is in others. The fact that Quebec lies on our Northern border, and Mexico to the South, while the Commonwealth of Puerto-Rico stands poised to become the Fifty-first state, should be enough to motivate Americans to learn French and Spanish. Multilingualism should not be seen as a threat to our American English identity, but embraced as a path of natural evolution, incorporating more of the unknown in all of its diversity, and making it part of an inclusive culture recognizing that we live in an international world.

With this in mind, I agree with Senator Barack Obama.


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