Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Obama and the monoglot

The Weekly Standard comments on Obama's speech in Atlanta yesterday.

Of course Obama's right, insofar as citizens of an ideal country in an ideal world would, obviously, polyglot their way through life. But how much practical value is there to speaking more than 1 language?

Well, it depends.

Where do you live? I have a brother living in Dublin, Georgia, for example, but I think it's safe to speculate that learning Irish wouldn't improve his life much. Neither French nor German would help him navigate the quiet lanes or shop the Piggly Wiggly. People speak English in Dublin, Georgia. Why shouldn't they? I can drive from Atlanta to Dublin and never once need anything more than the English I'm still learning after 37 years.

But driving the same distance in some European neighborhoods will mean driving through 3 countries. What makes sense in Europe doesn't always work in Georgia.

What kind of work do you do? I edit texts for a UK-based company and almost never have to consult my French Langenscheidt. Twice, maybe, in 6 years. It's true that some of our materials appear in UK English, which may qualify (depending on who you ask) as a foreign language, but what my employer requires is command of English, not Dutch or Chinese, however smart that might be. Our clients happen to know French and German, Russian and Spanish and sometimes Welsh. The fact that they want materials in English, and we provide them in English, good English, is no indication that we're all a bunch of jingoists. What will grow their business—what will thus grow my career and improve my salary—is deeper and yet more mastery of English. Not Spanish and not Filipino.

I think it's unfortunate to attach shame or ridicule to those Americans who speak only English. The implication ripples out, doesn't it, and similarly condemns monoglots from Las Crucitas to Charancy, right? For some of us, our birth language is the only language that makes any practical sense. That's not a thing to be embarrassed about, really. Even 1 language is enough to keep the most brilliant mind fruitfully occupied for a lifetime.

Anyway, I doubt Obama's a snob. I think it's more likely he's an idealist, and there's a lot of good things to say, in any language, about idealism. I just don't think what he had to say about language was very helpful for most of us.

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