NR Digital

Speaking in Tongues

by Jay Nordlinger

Candidates, Americans, and their foreign languages

The first words I ever heard Jon Huntsman speak were Chinese. Seriously. I knew about him, of course, but I had never heard him speak. Then, early last summer, I clicked on a video of an appearance by Huntsman in front of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. He opened with a burst of Chinese. To me, he looked awfully pleased with his prowess.

A half a year later, in one of the New Hampshire debates, he again spoke Chinese. He was rebuking Mitt Romney on some point of U.S. policy toward China. He was also showing off (I thought).

Huntsman learned Chinese through the Mormon Church, when they sent him on a mission to Taiwan some 30 years ago. From 2009 to last year, he was our ambassador to China. During his presidential run, he often said that the U.S.-China relationship would be the most important of the 21st century. But how can anyone know this?

Say you had been asked in 1912, “What will be the most important relationship of the 20th century?” What do you think you would have said? The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires seemed fixed facts of life. The Soviet Union was an evil gleam in Lenin’s eye.

There was a time, just short years ago, when we were all supposed to learn Japanese. That was because Japan was going to rival us as a superpower, at least in economic terms. I remember an ad for a university — Notre Dame, I think — shown at the halftime of a football game. The ad consisted entirely of a student’s speaking into the camera, in Japanese. (There were subtitles.) Message: This is the language of the future, if not of today.

And do you remember the following joke, told by all the smarties? Q: Who won the Cold War, the United States or the Soviet Union? A: Japan. About two seconds after that joke was hot, Japan was cold.

Like Huntsman, Mitt Romney went on a Mormon mission. He went to France in the 1960s. People who make fun of Mormons like to portray them as hicks in white dress shirts. But here is a fact to ponder: What is the most multilingual student body in America? That of Brigham Young University, probably.

In mid-December, CBS aired a report that began, “Something from Mitt Romney’s past is coming back to haunt him.” Uh-oh, what was that? Cheating on a college test? Extramarital affairs with stewardesses? No: He had learned French. “Apparently, speaking French is not a plus when you’re running for president,” said an anchor.

A Democratic “super PAC” had made an ad out of an old Romney video. This was a promotional video, shot when Romney was heading the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. In it, he speaks French, one of the two official languages of the Olympic movement, with English.

A month later, Newt Gingrich borrowed a page from this PAC, coming out with an anti-Romney ad in South Carolina. To the accompaniment of accordion music, the narrator likened Romney to two other Massachusetts politicians: Michael Dukakis (shown in his tank) and John Kerry (shown windsurfing). At the end came the coup de grâce: Romney speaking French, in that same Olympics video.

When I first saw the ad, I wondered whether any South Carolinians would feel insulted. Because the implication is, “Surely you backwoodsmen and swamp-dwellers will object to a candidate who knows French.”

In America, French has a mixed reputation, associated with some positive things and with some negative. On the positive side, French is thought refined and artistic. It is also the language of romantic love: mon amour, ma chérie, and all that. Think of Pepe LePew, engaged in his wooing. (Why this French skunk had a Spanish first name, I can’t tell you. Should have been “Pierre LePew.”) On the negative side, French is thought effete and wussy.

I will offer a simple, simple point: In France, everyone speaks French — poets, theater directors, and wilting violets, sure; also drill sergeants, gang members, and murderers.

Conservatives, more than other Americans, have enjoyed mocking the French and all things French. (Sometimes we have good reason.) When he was the Democrats’ nominee in 2004, Senator Kerry was described as “French-looking.” In my view, he’s too tall to be French: The males of that race got shrimpy after the Napoleonic wars, at least according to some. Kerry did have the hauteur, though.

In any event, French is of little advantage on the American campaign trail, except possibly in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Louisiana. Sure enough, Romney spoke some French when he was seeking votes in New Hampshire: He chatted in that language with a Quebecker, or former Quebecker, in a restaurant.

Of greater advantage, of course, is Spanish, the speaking of which is considered pretty cool in America — certainly when done by an “Anglo” candidate for office. When people tote up the virtues of Jeb Bush, they say, “And he speaks Spanish!” The former governor of Florida went to Mexico when he was 17. He met Columba, whom he eventually married. He also majored in Latin American studies at the University of Texas.

Our politicians have been campaigning in Spanish for many years. So have their spouses. Jackie Kennedy filmed an ad in Spanish, imploring her listeners to put her husband in the White House, because Communism was threatening world peace, and America needed a firm hand. (How Democrats once talked!) During the Carter years, we learned that Jimmy and Rosalynn read the Bible to each other in Spanish.

Barack Obama is not a speaker of Spanish. In 2009, he presided over a Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House. It was a day early, and Obama joked that they were really celebrating “Cinco de Cuatro.” He should have said “Cuatro de Mayo.” In that same period, he made a boo-boo in Europe, referring to a language called “Austrian.” No big deal. But I thought of a joke once told about Dan Quayle: He was reluctant to go to Latin America, because he didn’t speak Latin. (That was a joke, remember.)

Obama may not be a speaker of foreign languages, but he is not above chiding the American people for this same inability. Listen to him: “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.” Obama went on to say, “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.’”

Maybe the president should speak for himself. Or maybe he should vote for Romney?

Once upon a time, many, many American boys and girls learned Greek and Latin. Not just rich kids at Groton and Choate; ordinary children in slums, on the prairie, and in villages. When I was about 30, I pulled a primer off my grandmother’s shelves: The Elements of Greek. The preface said, “Are not the treasures of Greek literature richly worth the finding?” Oh, yes. “May not these treasures be brought within the reach of the average boy or girl?” I proved a little below average, I’m afraid.

When the classical languages faded away, the big ones were Spanish, French, and German, in that order. After World War II, even more than after the first one, German took a hit. Often, when you wanted to speak in sinister tones, you put on a German accent: “Vee haff vays of making you talk.” And never mind that half of Germany was ruled by Communists: German was associated with the far right.

Let me treat you to a line uttered by a colleague of mine. Once, when he was invited to a meeting of deeply conservative intellectuals, he said, “I’d love to, but my German’s not good enough.”

A lot of students thought they should learn Russian, as a component of Sovietology. But then the USSR collapsed, and there went Sovietology. If you wanted to study Russian, it was probably for Tolstoy, Chekhov, and them. These days, Arabic is much prized, as well it might be.

And Chinese is gaining. I know Manhattan parents who are quite insistent that their little ones learn this language of tomorrow. Some hire Chinese nannies to this end. We had a president who spoke Chinese, by the way: Herbert Hoover. In the years of the Boxer Rebellion, he worked in China as a mining engineer. His wife, Lou, picked up even more Chinese. In later years, they occasionally spoke Chinese together, when they didn’t want those around them to understand.

Theodore Roosevelt, our manliest president, spoke French — but he apparently spoke it roughly, as befits a Rough Rider. A later president, George W. Bush, spoke some Spanish, but did not speak French. He did a fabulous French accent in English, however: Anyone who has heard his impression of Jacques Chirac will not forget it.

Return once more to the East — so I can tell one of my favorite Thatcher stories. It concerns Denis, not Margaret. And I learned it from reading Charles Moore, the British journalist, who is writing Mrs. Thatcher’s authorized biography.

One night, the prime minister hosted a dinner for the president of Finland. Denis, bored, turned to the president’s wife and said, “What do Finns think of the Chinese?” The lady said that, being next door to Russia, Finns tended to think about the Russians; they did not think about the Chinese. “Well,” said Mr. Thatcher, “it’s about time they did, because there are more than a billion of the buggers.”

Send a letter to the editor.

Get the NR Magazine App
iPad/iPhone   |   Android