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.
Learning another language for its own sake makes one a more educated person in a profound sense. One gains a deeper understanding of his own language when exposed to the structure of language anew — in a way that goes beyond the diagramming of sentences in one’s native language.
For the Ph.D. in English, a degree that certifies one capable of work in the impractical — the beauty of language and ideas — the languages traditionally recommended for study have been Latin, French, and German because they make up the roots of English. The rationale has been that to understand literature written in English, one should be proficient in at least two of the aforementioned languages. They are also helpful in the study of older forms of English: Old English and Middle English.
Such a philosophy is a traditional one and is being picked up by homeschooling parents who recognize the value of learning Latin in understanding English grammar.
Language for the sake of language and for its ability to provide a richer understanding of the greatest works in our heritage has been abandoned for the utilitarian function of grinding forward “social justice” through Marxist-inspired texts about oppressed workers, many of them Spanish-speaking. To this end, more and more universities list Spanish as an option for demonstrating required language proficiency.
Obama’s call to teach children Spanish, therefore, reveals not an enlightened appreciation of another culture, but a quotidian concern with basic communication, furthermore communication with immigrants who today are most often illiterate or semiliterate. Obama is not imploring us to learn Spanish in order to read and discuss the works of Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Cervantes, but to be able to fill out welfare forms, give orders to construction workers, and to unionize chicken pluckers.
Obama, the Harvard-educated lawyer, betrays his own leftist objectives and profound lack of intellectualism. Like his radical friend, education professor and leader of the former Weathermen Bill Ayers, he does not value learning for its own sake, but sees it as a political tool, another way to use education to advance social goals. Obama’s view of foreign language acquisition is the opposite of the one of conservative parents and professors who have advocated foreign language study for the benefit of the student’s intellectual advancement. Obama, the dour schoolmaster, tells us we “must” learn the language of the border-hoppers who have invaded our country. I think I know what it felt like when my aunt was forced to learn Hungarian.