The Corner

Obama’s Embarrassment

Barack Obama’s ridiculous language comments, which Derb and others note below, are not only staggeringly condescending, they are also quite unfair. After telling parents that “instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish,” Obama expresses his frank embarrassment at Americans’ language skills:

You know 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. Right?

Well, not quite right, no. In fact, About 25 percent of Americans say that while they’re fluent in English they also speak a foreign language well enough to carry on a conversation (in fact, about 18 percent report speaking a foreign language at home, though not all of them are also fluent English speakers). In Europe, which is increasingly integrating societies with a large number of languages (the EU has 23 official languages), about 56 percent of the population reports speaking a language other than their mother tongue well enough to engage in conversation. The European who might speak French, English, and German all at once is actually pretty rare. And in Europe language skills are a function of multilingual states on the one hand and the transnational character of the life of elites on the other. As this EU document puts it:

A “multilingual” European is likely to be young, well-educated or still studying, born in a country other than the country of residence, who uses foreign languages for professional reasons and is motivated to learn. Consequently, it seems that a large part of European society is not enjoying the advantages of multilingualism.

Given the very different political circumstances of life in America, our level of bilingualism doesn’t actually seem that low. We are fortunate that (not by coincidence) our mother tongue is also the world’s primary language of commerce, so fewer of us learn a foreign language for professional reasons. If you take English out of the equation, the non-native language spoken most often by Europeans is German. (See page 5 of this EU document). About 14 percent of Europeans for whom German is not a native language speak German. By comparison, about 14 percent of Americans are fluent in both English and, what is for us the most logical second language to learn, Spanish.

Nothing to be embarrassed about.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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