In January Newt Gingrich put out an attack ad against Mitt Romney. Following the standard pattern of such ads, Romney was criticized for his political past. But it was the ending that provided the twist, as his French skills were used to show how he was like John Kerry, someone out of touch and unpatriotic simply because he could speak another language. Regardless of what one thinks of his politics, how can knowledge of a language have any impact on their political skills such as the ones outlined in the ad?
French is a language that, should the U.S. need reminding, belongs to a country that was a staunch ally in our fight for independence from English-speaking Great Britain. Indeed, it’s not Romney nor his politics that we need to examine, but the simple fact that speaking another language gives us enough reason to call their "Americaness" into question.
It’s shameful that so many in the U.S. seem to think that knowledge of the world outside of the U.S. should make one less patriotic, especially at a time where we should be connecting as much as possible with the wider world. American students and even Foreign Service employees are woefully lacking in language skills to the point where it is detrimental to their ability to perform their jobs. A recent study found that nearly one third of Foreign Service officers don’t have the language skills necessary to actually perform their jobs properly. This rate rose to nearly 40% for what are deemed supercritical languages, Arabic and Chinese. Surely the fact our overseas representatives can’t fully fulfil their jobs is enough to show how ridiculous it is to ridicule someone for their ability in a language other than English.
Schools and universities in the U.S. are doing no better. Language study in U.S. middle schools has declined from 75% in 1997 to just 58% by 2008. Even though a greater number of students are studying or volunteering abroad, as a nation we are still far behind most countries. Only one in five of U.S. 18-to 25-year-olds even have a passport. They are missing out on a whole world of opportunities as the rest of the world is growing in wealth that opens up the chance for Americans to work or trade abroad.
So what exactly are we afraid of? Speaking another language, even if not to fluency brings a great deal of other skills, especially if the language is studied in a foreign country. In fact the soft skills learned might be as valuable as the language itself meaning that the learner can interact and understand the cultural nuances that are particular to the countries of the language.
This is even more important for those, such as the Foreign Service, who represent the country abroad where local knowledge and language skills can only enhance relations. The lack of these sort of skills is what we should be worrying about, not a politician speaking French.
We’re a country of people who are mostly from somewhere else, if anything we should be less afraid of the outside world instead of so worried about any of it coming in. The U.S. isn’t a little bubble but as long as we are suspicious of engaging with it that’s the only perception that the rest of the world will get especially when we are worried about someone doing something as simple as speaking a second language. Therefore, isn’t it time to say au revoir to this sort of reverse cultural snobbery?
Photo Credit: Tim Green