A short snippet of an Obama speech the other night.
Here’s more of the expanded text of the speech.
You know, I don’t understand when people are going around worrying about, “We need to have English- only.” They want to pass a law, “We want English-only.”
Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language.
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?
You know, no, I’m serious about this. We should understand that our young people, if you have a foreign language, that is a powerful tool to get a job. You are so much more employable. You can be part of international business. So we should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age, because children will actually learn a foreign language easier when they’re 5, or 6, or 7 than when they’re 46, like me.
I really don’t get into the “English-only” debates too much. I believe the free market will cause immigrants or their children, if they want to compete for jobs or anything else in America, to eventually learn English. Not learning English in this society goes against your own economic self-interest. There is no great societal need to force-feed immigrants the English language. In that respect I suspect my position is similar to Obama’s.
There is an unspoken question underlying Obama’s other premise however. That question is whether the rationale for why American immigrants will ultimately learn English requires Americans to learn a language other than English. Ultimately I don’t think it does.
The purpose of language is communication. It is a tool. That’s it. Poets and English teachers may disagree with me of course, but for 99% of the world effective communication is the only purpose of language. The presence of multiple languages in the world is a barrier to better global communication.
The global community is moving towards far fewer languages than we currently have. Upwards of half of the worlds 7,000 languages will die out over the next century. To think that today’s Americanized English itself isn’t on the path to becoming the dying Latin of the 25th century is simply foolish. Just as the romance languages have their roots in Latin, spread by the soldiers, settlers and merchants of the Roman Empire, Americanized English is being birthed throughout the world by the scientists, entertainers and businessmen of our day. Just as the French that Obama would have me learn is a bastardized version of Latin, English is today on course to spawn numerous of its own sub-languages. How many languages will ultimately result? Who knows or cares. Its simply inevitable.
That being said, what is it about Barack Obama’s liberal guilt that causes him to be embarrassed that he is a native speaker of English? Is it that the English language benefits from (a) establishing itself in the United States, Canada, Australia and India, (b) being spoken in the most technologically innovative country of the last two centuries, (c) being spoken in the world’s dominant economic powers for the last two centuries, (d) being spoken in the country which provides much of the world’s entertainment, and (e) establishing itself as the primary driver of global integration through the creation of the internet?
Which of these things is it that embarrasses Barack Obama? One of them? All of them? The foolishness of his liberal guilt is even more apparent if you actually consider the alternative he’s proposing.
First, which foreign language should our children be obligated to learn? German? French? Farsi? Children throughout the world are taught English because children in other countries are also being taught English. The creeping dominance of the English language does not come from some underhanded attempt at American imperialism. It is the self-reinforcing result of a free-choice being made by millions of individual parents and schools throughout the world. For nearly any citizen of the world if you decide to learn a second language your obvious choice is English. For Americans who already speak English the choice is not so obvious.
Second, whatever second-language you decide that an American child should learn, it must be acknowledged that for most people 99.99999% of that person’s life is unlikely to involve using that language. I thought our school system was is in shambles? How much time would Obama have us waste teaching French in first through third grades rather than math and English? The absurdity of such a position is stupefying.
Finally, and most importantly, the position I’m advocating does nothing to leave this country at any sort of disadvantage so long as we continue to keep our borders open. If we were a closed society where immigration played little role in who we are as a people then I would put more credence in Obama’s position. But every day immigrants speaking the languages of the world enter this country to live and work and make a better life. Name a language. I’ll find you someone in this country that speaks it natively.
The inescapable fact is that the English language is at least one of those languages that will survive the current wave of globalization and consolidation. Speaking it is nothing to be embarrassed about. Francais parlant? c’est une question pour un autre jour.