At a 2008 campaign event, Senator Barack Obama responded to the perennial conservative impulse to make English the official language of the United States:
“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.”
Ironically, however, President Obama cannot speak a second language himself. He cannot converse with foreign leaders in their native tongue, nor can he speak with the millions of immigrants in this country in their first language. Although the annals of American political rhetoric are replete with laudatory remarks for the diverse combination of peoples, cultures, and languages unique to the United States, our Heads of State have been largely unrepresentative of America’s lingual vibrancy. President Obama is not the first President to lack multilingual faculties, nor should he shoulder all the blame for this being the case.
Blame the System
The disconnect today between vaunted American ideals of multiculturalism and the reality of Anglophone dominance in the presidency can in large part be traced to the American electoral system.
In 1968, the McGovern-Fraser Commission altered the power dynamic of the electoral system. The advent and spread of primary elections may have empowered the voting public at the expense of party leaders, but it also changed the types of candidates preferred for nomination. Since primary voters tend to be demographically unrepresentative of the larger electorate (and some closed primaries exclude non-partisans from participating), successful nominees usually resemble primary voters’ likeness.
The ideal nominee, therefore, is one who has the durability and charisma to survive the protracted yearlong nomination process, has the outward projection of erudition, demonstrates an intense and visible sense of patriotism, and so forth. Even though people rave about the comparative advantages of multilingualism in searching for a job in today’s global economy, nowhere on the list of qualifications is the presidential nominee expected to be fluent in a language other than English.
This is, of course, to be expected, since only 14 percent of Americans can claim fluency in conventional Spanish, with other languages lagging way behind. We are very much an insular country and thus, the President’s relation to non-English-speaking Americans and immigrants (those who generally cannot vote to begin with), or even to delegates of foreign countries with whom the U.S. maintains relations, is not a priority.
Those who deviate from this pattern have suffered at least temporary setbacks. During last year’s Republican primary, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman were criticized for their abilities to speak French and Mandarin, respectively, and were viewed by some Republican primary voters as less patriotic than their opponents. In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry’s fluency in French, which had hitherto been a campaign secret, was revealed when prompted at a campaign rally, leading some in the media to believe it would cost him.
Perhaps today’s electoral set-up helps to explain why the United States has not had a President fluent in a language other than English since Franklin D. Roosevelt (French and German) in 1945, before McGovern-Fraser.
The Comparative Perspective
Naturally, American exceptionalism is alive and well today. Just as the U.S. Dollar is the reserve currency of the world, English has become the reserve language of the world, spoken as the official language of more countries than any other in the world. Every nation has an army of translators fluent in as many languages as there are countries who serve as the conduits of foreign policy exchanges.
The U.S.’s superpower status and relative geographic isolation from Europe, Asia, and Africa, however, do not mean it operates in a vacuum when it comes to foreign policy – the rules of engagement remain the same.
The leaders of the G8 countries, the top eight economies in the world today, do not rest on their laurels as a pretext to remain insular. Instead, they carry out their business in a variety of languages embracing the diverse tongues of their native country, as well as the surrounding international community. And the multilingual impulse is widespread through their government leadership. For example, even though British Prime Minister David Cameron is like President Obama in being nothing more than an Anglophone, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg speaks five languages fluently.
In an age of rapid translation, why does any of this matter?
As any linguist will tell you, understanding the literal meaning of a word through translation is one thing, but appreciating another culture and frame of mind is quite another and has broad ramifications on policy decisions. One need look no further than to the cordial relations between former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy, mediated through the French language, to see the benefits of cultural concordance and mutual understanding.
More than international positioning, however, a U.S. president with multilingual faculties would provide symbolic leadership domestically, as well. Aside from the obvious boon it would be to claiming authority on issues like immigration, the American education system stands to benefit from top-down leadership. According to the Center for Implied Linguistics, the percentage of U.S. middle schools offering foreign language instruction fell from 75 percent to 58 percent between 1997 and 2008 – and that was before the Great Recession. The President has the power to set priorities from the top and demonstrate the opportunities made possible by a multilingual background.
The United States may be exceptional in every respect, but that does not mean it has to remain ignorant of the world around it either.
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