“I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!” Barack Obama exclaimed today at town hall meeting here. Obama, who often touts his time growing up overseas, made the confession while speaking about the importance of teaching foreign languages in schools.
Obama came under fire by conservative groups earlier this week, after he said that more Americans should learn a foreign language.
At town hall meeting in Powder Spring, Georgia on Tuesday, Obama said, “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?”
This is one issue that, in some ways, I agree with him about. However, putting people down on the subject only makes people angry, it won’t solve the problem.
First, I tend to be a fan of French culture and language, especially as it relates to my Christian belief (Arnauld and Nicole, Pascal, Bossuet, etc.) I had a chance to express this extensively in my novel The Ten Weeks, where the French got plenty of chances to stick their noses up at the Anglophones around them.
Second, the teaching of foreign languages in schools needs upgrading in this country. If you can learn a foreign language, it will also help you speak your own better as well, and we certainly need that. I have used both of the living languages I learned (French and Spanish) in both my secular business and in my ministry work, especially the latter.
But that’s my point–if Obama wants to do something constructive about foreign language competency in this country, he needs to start in the public schools. And that’s where the problem is. It’s a given that the teachers’ trade union will endorse him. To upgrade foreign language education will require upgrading those who teach it. And, if experience with science and math is any indication, the trade union will fight it, which means that most politicians (especially the Democrats) won’t touch the issue.
And, of course, expecting Anglophone Americans to learn a foreign language has a flip side: those who immigrate here need to learn English. To do that properly would involve slaughtering the sacred cow of bilingual education, which is another political hurdle the Democrats are unwilling to jump.
Constructive solutions are one thing. Spouting elitist snob platitudes is quite another. Rest assured that, if Barack Obama shows any credible inclination of taking on the teachers’ trade union, that would be change that everyone could believe in. (He could start by putting this in his iPod.) But I’m not holding my breath.