Americans would be wise to learn a second language

August 11, 2008|By CYNTHIS TUCKER

ATLANTA - Perhaps you remember the dust-up several weeks ago when Sen. Barack Obama, speaking at a town hall meeting in suburban Atlanta, suggested that parents should urge their children to learn foreign languages. Xenophobic commentators and GOP activists immediately took to the stump to denounce Obama for elitism, insufficient nationalism and a tendency to coddle foreigners.

Now that the political drama has died down and the dumbest comments have faded away, it's time to re-examine Mr. Obama's premise: In a rapidly globalizing economy, those who are fluent in at least one foreign language will be best prepared to find good jobs. Who can argue with that?

Certainly not the anxious affluent, who push their children into the most selective kindergarten programs, the most exclusive elementary schools and the most demanding high schools - with college-prep academic camps stuffed in between, so they'll be chosen for the most competitive colleges. Those students will spend at least one college semester, perhaps more, studying abroad, where they will practice their French, Italian, Spanish, Russian or, increasingly, Mandarin.

They'll be in demand for the prestigious law firms, the Wall Street jobs, the tenure-track teaching posts. Those stuck with "English-only" skills will find themselves less valuable in a global marketplace.

There is a powerful strain of anti-intellectualism in American political and cultural life which, when joined with undercurrents of jingoism, heaps suspicion on those educated enough and cosmopolitan enough to speak foreign languages. Fluent in French, Sen. John Kerry was on the receiving end of that foolish claptrap during the 2004 presidential campaign. (Mr. Obama, who speaks only English, says he wishes he were fluent in another language.)

That Kerry-bashing lacked ideological consistency: Jeb Bush - who remains popular among ultra-conservative Republicans - majored in Latin American studies in college and is fluent in Spanish. A Texas bank sent him to Caracas, Venezuela, shortly after college, where he worked in international finance. (His brother, President Bush, attempts to speak Spanish but does so poorly.)

According to the Web site for the federal Department of Education, President Bush has pushed a "National Security Language Initiative" to "dramatically increase the number of Americans learning, speaking and teaching critical-need foreign languages. Foreign language skills are essential to engaging foreign governments and peoples, especially in critical world regions, to promote understanding, convey respect for other cultures and encourage reform. These skills are also fundamental to the economic competitiveness and security interests of the nation."

Sounds like there's something about which Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama agree: Nothing could be more dangerous for an America already losing its edge in the world than to teach its children to disdain other languages and distrust other cultures, to skip geography, to forget about travel abroad.

If the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians and the Russians are busy learning English so they can do business with us, doesn't it behoove us to learn their languages, too? (In China, all elementary school students must study English.) At a time when the West is threatened by Arab jihadists, don't we need many more intelligence agents and soldiers who speak Arabic?

While activists alarmed about illegal immigration have spent the last decade supporting "English-only" codes and decrying the loss of cultural touchstones associated with Western Europe, the actual harm to the nation lies in our refusal to acknowledge the growing economic competitiveness of other countries. South Koreans aren't shunning English. It's one more weapon in their arsenal as they advance in commerce, engineering and the sciences.

So the next time you hear some smart-mouth pundit acting as though foreign-language fluency is a sign of decadence or an unbecoming Frenchy-ness, don't fall for it. That pundit likely has a passport. If he has college-age kids, he has probably worked hard to help them study abroad. Do as he does, not as he says. Enroll your kids in Spanish or Russian or Mandarin classes.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears regularly in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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