Friday, July 18, 2008

Foreign Languages

So, last week addressing a meeting of La Raza, Obama argued that we shouldn't worry about immigrants learning English because, like all other immigrants before them, they will. He argued that instead we ought to be worried about the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans only speak English. Let's put the energy into making sure our children are multilingual.

He argued that it it is embarrassing when Europeans come here speaking English, French, and German when we, in general, only know simple phrases at most. Being bilingual, he argued, helps in getting good jobs and it makes us part of the global community which improves international relations, not to mention that it makes individual life richer.

The xenophobic right-wing has gone bananas over it: see Lou Dobbs and John Derbyshire, because it shows weakness on illegal immigration, everyone else in the world does or should speak English, and Obama's an elitist for thinking that everyone else is smart enough to learn two languages.

We were in Montreal the other day, so this issue really hit home. We like putting the kids in a place where they realize that not everyone speaks like they do, that the world is bigger than they usually see.

But the one objection that is probably worth discussing is Derbyshire's question of aptitude. Neurologically, of course, Derbyshire is full of it. The young human mind is so flexible that it much more easily picks up languages -- it is not some ability limited to liberal intellectual elites. But, given all of the things our schools need to improve upon, given that arts and physical education are being cut back, given that we have biology teachers who are creationists, how high should this be put on the agenda? Would widespread multilingualism really make us more sensitive to the world beyond our borders? Would it really lead to more and better engagement with the world for u individually, for our government and our businesses? Is language acquisition something crucial or is it oversold?