Obama’s language envy

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The Article

MONTREAL – To celebrate the “European day of languages” last Friday, a Berlin radio station broadcast some of its daily pablum in Latin, its promoters “particularly looking forward to a member of staff who has written a Latin rap song.”

There’s more to a language, even a dead one used as jokey radio fodder, than what meets the ears. The languages we speak—or can’t speak or no longer speak—are clues to who we are and how we perceive others.

The study of Latin was once a preserve of the upper crust. As a lugubrious coal miner, seeking to explain the disparity between his humble metier and his perceived career desserts mused in a hilarious 1961 British satirical review, “Oy coulda been a judge, but oy nivver ‘ad the Latin for it. You ‘ave to ‘ave the Latin for the judgin’….”

From elite “judgin’” to vulgar rap in 50 years: Sic transit gloria mundi.

Speaking of elitism, while campaigning this summer, Barack Obama scolded Americans for their relative unilingualism: “We should have every child learning more than one language. 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.’”

On the surface, Obama’s exhortation sounds reasonable. But consider his all but stated premise—that Europeans’ ability to speak more than one language is a sign of their cultural superiority—and you realize it’s Obama being Obama: In their indifference to learning French and German, ordinary Americans (especially those bitter, gun-totin’ ones) have disappointed him yet again.

There are three common reasons to acquire a second language: You need to, you’re made to or you’re culturally motivated to.

Europeans who deal in tourism, business or international politics—or whose own language is useless beyond their borders—all speak English. They need to, as do immigrants to Canada.

Immigrants to Quebec learn French because they’re made to. Most would choose English if they had their druthers.

Cultural motivation drives the learning of superannuated languages on life support—Latin, Yiddish, Gaelic, many aboriginal languages—which serve as precious living cultural archives.

Unpacking Barack Obama’s impassioned plea for language learning in America, I find his statement “it’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here” disingenuous. “It” really means “I, Barack Obama am embarrassed on your behalf when Europeans find Americans don’t speak French or German.”

Obama doesn’t get it. Europeans don’t learn French and German and English as a noble paean to diversity. They learn it for the same reason I learned French and many border Americans learn Spanish: pragmatic self-interest. Texan George W. Bush acquired Spanish, not from altruism or sophistication, but to woo Hispanic voters.

Unlike multiple-bordered European countries, some quite tiny, America and Canada are geographically immense. Moreover, English is as close to a universal language as the world knows, and 99% of the time there is no pressing need for most Americans to speak a second language, let alone a third.

I majored in Latin for two years in university, an aesthetic luxury, for even then it was clearly sliding into cultural irrelevance. In retrospect I should have bolstered my French, a living, useful language, for a life in Quebec I didn’t know was to be my destiny.

Judging from my own laborious efforts over the years, learning to speak another language well enough to, say, perform nimbly in a media interview, without the benefit of full-time immersion, involves a huge commitment of time and energy. Why do it, if the return—whether material, professional or psychological—doesn’t reward the investment? So Obama needn’t apologize for happily unilingual Americans. Rooted and secure, they don’t share the cultural restlessness that has him genuflecting before post-patriotic, pluralinguistic Europe. They don’t feel the least bit inferior to Europeans, nor should they on that score.

Ironically enough, a full quarter of Americans can converse in a second language. It is Barack Obama who can only say “merci beaucoup.”

Yup, in spite of the cornucopia of language courses available to him at alma maters Columbia and Harvard University, the unilingual Barack Obama didn’t lead by example (ductus exemplo) in practising the virtue he self-righteously preaches to others.

Contritionem praecedit superbia: Pride goeth before a fall. Put another way: You ‘ave to ‘ave the ‘umility for the leadin.’

Barbara Kay
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Joel Johannesen
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