Tags: obama | spanish | lesson

Barack Obama's Spanish Lesson

Thursday, 10 Jul 2008 01:25 PM

By Lowell Ponte

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When he was Canada’s prime minister during the 1970s, the haughty liberal socialist Pierre Elliott Trudeau demanded that during a trip to the Maritime Provinces he be provided with a “bilingual driver.”

Upon his arrival, this distant relative of American “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau learned to his chagrin that his chauffeur was indeed bilingual, fluent in both English and Irish-Gaelic.

This story has long been a popular joke in Canada because of who Trudeau was and the culture he reflected. As prime minister, the Quebec-raised and ethnically French Trudeau entrenched formal French-English bilingualism as Canada’s official legal language, requiring all laws, currency, and other products of government to be written in both languages.

This week, Americans discovered that we may soon have our own Pierre Elliott Trudeau as president if presumptive Democratic Party candidate Sen. Barack Obama wins this November.

“Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English,” Obama told a Georgia audience, “. . . you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.”

Obama then quickly attempted to broaden and blur his statement, adding: “We should have every child speaking more than one language.

“It’s embarrassing,” he continued, “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.’”

Is Obama himself fluent in Spanish? Apparently not. But in May he did an ad for the Puerto Rico primary in which all but the first word or two was spoken in very passable, near-fluent Spanish. (In Canada, politicians from the English-speaking provinces deliberately make their required French statements in a crude way to reassure voters back home that they are not succumbing to Quebec. Obama in a like manner began his ad with a Gringo thud before finishing in Spanish acceptable to the ear of native speakers.)

As one who grew up in the Southwest and took Spanish in high school, I agree with Obama that learning this language would improve and enrich our children’s lives. Both Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Obama will continue to push for a political unification of the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the rest of Latin America.

Hispanic-Americans have already surpassed African-Americans and become our largest ethnic minority group. Today, they comprise approximately 14 percent of America’s population, and far more than that in several Southwestern states.

By 2050, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, 29 percent of the U.S. population will be Latino.

In key battleground Southwestern states, the Hispanic vote could decide who wins — and who becomes president — this November. It’s easy to see why Obama is pandering to this key group of voters. But let’s pause to remember what is misleading and destructive in what he said.

First, in comparing us to the socialist welfare states of Europe and their cosmopolitan sophistication, let’s remember that most of us had ancestors who fled from there to seek a freer society with more opportunity.

In doing so, they brought the brightest, bravest, and most adventurous genes of Europe with them. The best of Europe is therefore now here, not among the dregs that stayed put and lacked the gumption to venture to the New World.

I had grandparents who still spoke French, German, and other tongues but who believed that teaching these languages to their children and grandchildren would make us less than Americans.

Second, of course Euro-tourists know how to speak English. Thanks both to the British Empire and to America’s success, English is the world language of diplomacy, business, science, and more.

We already speak the world language, the Latin of our age.

Have we forgotten the Bible’s tale of the Tower of Babel, and of how part of the punishment for human sin was that the common human language was shattered into a multiplicity of different tongues so that humans could no longer understand or feel kinship with one another?

Europe is Babel — petty nation-states that have warred with one another ever since the end of the Pax Romana’s common Latin more than 15 centuries ago.

The whole of Europe, from the southern tip of Spain to the northeastern tip of Poland, could be put between Los Angeles and Denver with room to spare.

But because Europeans have zealously maintained their babble of languages and the gaggle of petty nationalisms attached thereto, Barack Obama’s glorious Europe has been a hotbed of war, cultural and religious strife, and genocide.

Canada has produced its own version of this European Balkanization. The country was once Nouvelle France, but relatively few French settled there because under French neo-feudalism a French peasant could not advance his wealth or status by moving to this frigid wilderness.

The English colonies of North America, by contrast, made it easy for the poor of England to earn wealth, property, and status by coming here. When war for control of the continent flared between England and France in the 1700s, abundant English settlers easily overwhelmed the scant French population of Canada. (And France would later seek revenge by aiding rebels in England’s colonies.)

But Nouvelle France offered lifelong pensions for any French immigrant couple who gave birth to six children in Canada. The descendants of these fecund breeders are the Franco-nationalists of Quebec today.

The United States conquered part of Mexico, and this land became the Southwestern states of America. The Spanish spoken here by a minority of Hispanics, especially Mexican-Americans, is a language of resistance, resentment and rebellion.

As UCLA sociologists Edward Telles and Vilma Ortez report reported in a new study, the first generation of Mexican-American immigrants and their children improve improved their lives in the U.S. and made efforts to speak English.

But assimilation and success come much slower to third and fourth generation Mexican-Americans, in part because many find it easy to live in America’s relatively uneducated Spanish-speaking subculture.

Obama implied that Spanish should become America’s second language. This would promote the same strife and political power struggles that French-English bilingual Balkanization has caused in Canada.

Obama now should tell us unequivocally whether he favors making Spanish America’s second official language.

Senator, please bring us together around one language, the world language: English.

And speaking of words, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said he wants to “cut” Obama’s “n**s off.” Is the Secret Service going to ignore this threat of physical violence against a presidential candidate?

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