“My name is Jon Huntsman, and I’m going to become the next President of the United States.”
That is not a very peculiar thing to hear when tuning in to CNN and seeing a Piers Morgan interview with one of the GOP presidential candidates. What is peculiar is hearing a politician, namely a Republican politician, repeating the statement in Chinese. As Morgan noted soon after Huntsman’s linguistic display, he is the only candidate in the GOP presidential field with a fluency in a foreign language, and, if elected, only the second president to be fluent in the world’s most widely spoken language (after Herbert Hoover). With America constantly striving to stay at the apex of the world's globalization trend, it cannot afford to continue shooting itself in the foot by shutting its doors to outside cultures and proper foreign language education for youth.
Such a lack of language skills in a field of presidential contenders is not an unusual sight to see. In fact, the English-only sentiment seems to be increasing, especially among the conservatives. Recently, Pennsylvania state representative Scott Perry introduced legislation into the Pennsylvania House that would make English the official language of the state, a trait shared by 31 other states though, not the country as a whole as it has no official language (English is only the de facto national language). Further, the proposed legislation would prevent the use of tax money for printing any form of legislation in other languages. In addition, some have alleged that English as a second language programs might face spending cuts as well. Simple things like tourist information brochures would no longer be offered in other languages.
This kind of a xenophobic bill comes as sad news for America. Though one of the intentions may be to improve economic efficiency (i.e. teaching immigrants to speak English rather than teaching our children foreign languages spoken by immigrants), an English-only bill would send a powerful message to international corporations and businesses as well as immigrants who have contributed economically and socially to the United States.
At a time when many are beginning to see the merits of bi- and multilingualism and studies are beginning to show that bilingual students do better in school, legislation that linguistically limits the intellectual and cultural aptitude of the state should not be promoted by politicians, regardless of their partisan affiliation. With Columbus Day in hindsight, we should take a moment to reflect on the foundation of our country: We are a country of immigrants.
One of the things that makes American culture unique is the amalgamation of various different cultures from around the world, in the interest of preserving liberty and equality. Our presidents were once a testament to this multicultural spirit – 12 of the first 20 U.S. presidents were fluent in a language other than English (most were fluent in two). Yet, as the world has become increasingly globalized, our presidents have even less to show for them. The last president to speak a language other than English fluently was almost a century ago – FDR, who spoke French and German.
America can no longer sit idly by as an increasingly globalized world makes English monolingualism a disadvantage on the world stage. It starts at a state level; don’t allow the need for budget cuts to trump the openness to outsiders or the education of our students.
Photo Credit: Pargon