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Is a Second Language a Liability?



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During his campaign speeches, Jon Huntsman would often say a few sentences in Mandarin Chinese. This display did not go over well with audiences, which led some commentators to suggest that knowledge of a second language is a political liability. This commentary misses a distinction.

It’s good for candidates to know other languages. Because so many issues involve statistics, it’s also good for them to know calculus. But it would be strange if a candidate routinely interrupted speeches to solve differential equations. People would think that the candidate was just showing off.

And that’s why the Mandarin phrases flopped: People saw them as a sign of boastfulness, not expertise.

Newt Gingrich is overlooking this distinction. Though Romney does not drop French into his speeches, Gingrich is running an attack ad with a 9-year-old clip of Romney greeting French volunteers to the Winter Olympics. Not only is the attack ineffective, it also serves as a reminder that Gingrich himself learned French. (His dissertation cites many French-language sources.) It seems that his new campaign slogan is: “I used to know French, but don’t worry: I forgot it!”



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