Barack Obama, in a recent talk, repeated an oft-stated sentiment of the left that Americans should look to multilingual Europe as a model for intellectual advancement. Chiding the American public for clinging to the English language, Obama said, “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.’” He also said: “Understand this: Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English … you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.”
In his stab at sophistication, Obama was wrong on both counts: that European multilingualism is necessarily a sign of intellectual superiority and that learning Spanish in our schools today is a means towards an expanded intellectualism and sophistication.
Obama, who promises to reform education by pumping tax money into teachers’ salaries and into “0 to 5″ preschool programs, would himself benefit from a review of geography and history. Much of European multilingualism extends from sheer necessity, from the small countries’ proximities to each other. If one wants to travel, sometimes even to the next city, one needs to know another language. This is particularly true in the smaller countries, like Slovenia, where my cousin’s husband, like many of his countrymen, works for a foreign company. He travels to Italy, Austria, and Germany to install sun rooms. If you plan to travel throughout Europe, Slovenian can get you only so far.
But many Europeans, particularly Central and Eastern Europeans, have also learned other languages through force. This was the experience of my aunt around World War II. When the part of Slovenia that my family is from, Prekmurje, was under Hungarian occupation, children like my aunt were forced to learn Hungarian in school. Such force-feeding of an obscure language and of the occupiers’ version of history bred only resentment among the peasant children of the villages, like my aunt. Children in the western part of the country had similar experiences with Italian. After the war, the Serb control of the military bred resentment among Slovenians against that culture and language. And in the Warsaw Pact countries all school children had to learn Russian.
For much of history, German was the lingua franca for Central Europe, as it was in Slovenia. It was not until the Reformation that Slovenia acquired a systematic orthography, alphabet, and standardized language, with the first book in Slovenian not appearing until 1550. The first Czech grammar was not published until 1790. Language, for those countries under foreign domination, provided the means by which to retain a cultural identity. The people passed on their heritage through written and sung verse and stories.
Obama needs to be reminded that the United States is not in Europe. In a country this large, with a historically diverse ethnic population, language becomes a unifier. The fact that English is the one language spoken in a country of this size provides evidence of our independence and unity. The acquisition of a second language here, consequently, is done neither out of necessity nor under duress. Rather, a foreign language is studied for its own sake — an endeavor that signals a sure sign of higher education and a higher standard of living.