2008 July 12 Saturday
Obama Foolishness On Value Of Multilingualism

Barack Obama thinks Americans need to learn other languages.

I don't understand when people are going around worrying about, "We need to have English only." They want to pass a law, "We want just, uh, we want English only."

Ron Unz waged a battle in many states across the country against so-called multi-lingual education. In practice multi-lingual education amounted to putting Spanish-speaking kids in Spanish instruction classes so that they didn't get exposed heavily to English when they were young and most able to rapidly learn a language. We have every reason to worry about kids learning English because teachers and school administrators can make more money by keeping kids in Spanish language educational ghettoes. But Obama is oblivious to all this.

Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But, but, understand this. Instead of worrying about whether, uh, immigrants can learn English -- they'll learn English -- you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.

Our children do not need to learn Spanish if all the people around them speak English. Having everyone speaking the same language is called having a communications standard. Communications standards are extremely useful. You are able to read what I've written here because standards such as TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML, Javascript, and ethernet allow a large number of computer devices to communicate with each other.

People can communicate because they speak the same language. The tower of Babel is a bad idea. Fewer languages mean more people can communicate with each other.

You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language.

Why? What is the point of this? I learned German in high school and rarely had any opportunity to use it. I'd have to spend a lot of money to go to some place where speaking German would be useful. This is just leftist elite snobbery. He is embarrassed that we do not measure up to multi-lingual Europeans. But the linguistically balkanized Europe is at a huge competitive disadvantage because they can not communicate in a single shared language. The advantage of America is that all the immigrants learned English and English became a worldwide standard for business communications and scientific communications.

We embarrass Barack Obama. Poor dear. We do not measure up.

You know, it's embarrassing, it's embarrassing when -- when, uh, 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."

In Europe the big push for decades has been to learn English so that everyone can talk to each other in a common language. That's true in international companies around the world. A world standard language lowers costs and improves efficiency.

I had a Dutch friend in college who could speak 5 languages. He told me he needed to speak 5 languages because he could drive a couple of hours in a car and find himself in areas where the people speak 5 different languages. But living in America he saw it as a waste of time to spend time learning languages that you'll have little opportunity or need to use.

Obama reacts to criticism of his statement by claiming that learning more languages is learning more knowledge and how can anyone be opposed to learning more knowledge?

"This is an example of some of the problems we get into when somebody attacks you for saying the truth, which is: We should want our children with more knowledge. We should want our children to have more skills. There's nothing wrong with that. That's a good thing. I know, because I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing," Obama said chuckling as his audience did the same.

This is yet another example of left-liberal elite folly. Some kinds of knowledge are useful. But other kinds of knowledge are a waste to learn because they have little or no value. How many job advertisements do you see saying "We'll pay you $20000 more per year if you speak Czech"? Or how about the big bonuses for speaking Swahili? You might be able to make more for speaking Chinese - but only if you work in occupation where you coordinate the work of Chinese engineers or production workers. Or if you want to go sell your products in a country that speaks another language then skills in that language can help. But this advantage from speaking other human languages is rare for people who speak English.

Obama thinks we should think about how to make our kids trilingual.

"Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English - they'll learn English - you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish," Mr. Obama said. "You should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language."


This is not the first time Mr. Obama has addressed the issue of bilingualism, as he touched upon the subject during a town hall meeting held in Colorado on May 28.

"Understand that my starting principle is, everybody should be bilingual or everybody should be trilingual," Mr. Obama said in response to a question about bilingual education. The Illinois senator explained his position was predicated on the belief the U.S. would be economically impaired if it remained a country geared toward English only.

He has a "starting principle"? Obama is like the sum of all Ivy League liberal prejudices. He's never worked in an international corporation. He doesn't speak the foreign languages he thinks Americans should speak. He hasn't done cold hard calculations on the economic value of speaking various languages. He hasn't done trade-off analyses of the relative value of learning Spanish versus Chinese versus C++ or Java or petroleum engineering. He's just got this belief common among his clique which he hasn't thought hard about.

We are headed into 4 to 8 years of hearing foolish left-liberal elite utterances from a sitting President of the United States. While Democrats see Obama as a big departure from Bush I see him as Bush Plus. He'll be just as wrong on immigration. He'll be just as wrong on education. But he'll add on to that even more liberal beliefs than Bush believes.

Update: Steve Sailer points out Barack Obama has not availed himself of excellent opportunities to learn foreign languages.

Obama lacks a second language despite living for four years at an impressionable age in a foreign country, and then spending eight years at a lavish prep school that currently offers five different languages and makes studying at least one of them mandatory in 7th grade. Sen. Obama also has an undergraduate degree from Columbia University, which has a foreign language requirement and offers 37 different foreign languages, including some that don't exist anymore, such as Akkadian. He later spent three years at Harvard, which offers instruction in more languages than I'm willing to count. I did make it through Harvard's "African Languages" list and counted 20 separate ones offered at Harvard.

So, Obama has had more opportunity to learn a foreign language than 95% of all native-born Americans, but he hasn't.

I do not like "Do as I say, not as I do" messages.

Update II: Obama thinks people in India who speak English have a huge advantage by being bilingual.

"We as a society do a really bad job teaching foreign languages, and it is costing us when it comes to being competitive in a global marketplace," the Illinois senator said at a school here Wednesday. He said India has a "huge advantage" because most people speak English besides their native language.

India has several hundred languages with 29 languages each spoken by at least 1 million people. That's not a competitive advantage. That is a competitive disadvantage. This necessitates complex constitutional clauses and laws on the use of languages. A late 1964 attempt to phase out English in government in favor of Hindi met with violent protests. The existence of multiple languages widely used within a nation's borders causes political divisions as we see in Iraq, Canada, Belgium, and other countries which labor under political splits that result from competing languages.

Update III: John Derbyshire points out beyond early childhood people find it very hard to learn additional languages. Derb also argues that Obama overestimates the amount of cognitive capacity most people have available to learn languages. Most people are not as smart as Obama. People with high verbal IQ but not as much spatial IQ seem to overestimate the IQ of others.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2008 July 12 09:47 AM  Cultural Wars Western

Dave said at July 12, 2008 11:11 AM:

Aren't you reading a bit much into this, surely Obama was just giving a nod and a wink to hispanics about creating a multilingual America. Why didn't he talk about speaking Welsh, or Irish, or Swedish, because thats not really what its about.

H8er said at July 12, 2008 12:41 PM:

He didn't even bother learning any African languages. What an asshole. Besides, blacks should learn some basic English before they bother with any other languages. These people can't even commit crimes using basic English, it seems to be some babble of "jive", ebonics or some other shit.

kurt9 said at July 12, 2008 12:53 PM:


Your point is valid. However, there is another way of looking at this. Languages, like any other cognitive skill, are a tool. The more tools you have, the more capable and, therefor, more competitive you are. There is no such thing as have too many tools or being "too" capable. Consider Malaysia, for example. As you know or may not know, there are Chinese and Malay people in Malaysia. All the kids are required to learn Malay language in school. The Chinese kids learn Chinese (and English) as well. The Malay kids learn only Malay. The result is the Chinese kids are way more competitive in the marketplace than the Malay kids because they can speak more languages. Likewise, if the Anglo kids can speak both Spanish and English, and the Hispanic kids speak only Spanish, who has the competitive advantage? If you have spent time in Malaysia, you will understand what I am getting at here.

You can argue legitimately that since China, not Spanish-speaking Latin America, is the place of the future, that perhaps all of the kids should learn Chinese instead (BTW, many wealthy NYC people hire Chinese nannies for their kids because they want their kids to learn Chinese in addition to English - a very smart move in my opinion). However, even if everyone learns only Spanish as a second-language, they are still better off than learning Eanglish only. One, although Spanish Latin America is not the most dynamic part of the world, Mexico has a fair amount of manufacturing and has some potential for the future. The same is true for Chile and Argentina. The second reason is that learning s second language, even if it is not so useful in and of itself, helps to increase neuro-plasticity in the brain, thus making it easier to learn additional languages than it otherwise would be.

The competitive advantage argument for bi-lingualism is one that every white nationalist worth their weight in salt should support it.

Other than my above points, I agree with your comments about Obama.

Randall Parker said at July 12, 2008 1:10 PM:


Yes, for some people learning Chinese makes sense. The value of knowing Chinese will go up as China goes on to become the largest economy by far.

Malay kids: The Chinese have higher IQs. That is the biggest reason why the Chinese in Malaysian do better than the Malays.

Cognitive tools: I would advise learning physics, mathematics, computer programming, and several other mind stretchers. Though most people aren't smart enough to master these subjects.

Stephen said at July 12, 2008 6:21 PM:

Everyone should learn a second language and try to live it for a while in the language's home country. Having a second language does something to the brain. Not sure how to characterise the effect, but people are better for it.

Also agree about the importance of studying the hard and abstract sciences, but those skills exercise the mind in a way that is different than a second language.

Rob said at July 12, 2008 11:26 PM:

Learning to draw would be more mind-expanding than learning spanish.

If traditional Americans all learned Spanish, what would bilingual hispanics do instead of translating English instructions to Spanish (or Nahuatl) for their crews of more-recent Mestizo immigrants?

I'm curious, controlling for IQ, are Spanish-speaking nations poorer on average?

Dragon Horse said at July 13, 2008 6:53 AM:

English should be the official language, but American children should be encouraged to study PRACTICAL second languages. In Houston they print stuff in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, and English. In Miami I know they do Portuguese, English, Spanish, Haitian Creole. New York and L.A. are ridiculous; this costs millions. A practical second language means they don't need to study Russian or Italian, but French; German; Chinese; Japanese; Portuguese are all practical in my analysis as they apply to business needs. Spanish is not important for the average American to learn because unless you live some place very isolated, there will always be a native Spanish speaker who can speak much better than you that will be hired.

If you want to work with Africa -- then French and English are the key to 90% of the continent. Asia...most educated Asians speak English but it really helps with business if you speak the local language somewhat...In Europe...English, French, and German will get you by from London to Moscow (most educated Russians speak English or German as a second language). Arabic...not just for business but also you can work in intelligence with the government or for various international organizations.

If I did not speak Mandarin (I can barely write but I speak intermediate) I would not have the job I do in DC, but I work in an industry where speaking a second language is pretty much a job requirement. To be honest I only speak Mandarin on the job once a month for about 5 minutes or so. I do a Mandarin Meetup group in DC to practice my and I have Chinese friends in the area I hang out with...that's enough.

I know a guy right now who makes $75 an hour translating e-mails and other documents for law firms involved in law suits with Japanese companies and subsidiaries. He made 100K last year in the DC area just doing that as a contractor. He acquired this skill by living in Japan 2 years, teaching English and speaking Japanese at home with his wife (Japanese). He is no genius, trust me. Anyone can learn another language, that has little to do with IQ...as long as you are slightly above average (maybe 100-110) and you are determined and can speak often...that's about it.


Maybe in the backwoods trailer park you live in that is the situation, in Washington D.C., in the International Relations/Affairs community there are a lot of blacks (including Africans) and they speak everything from Arabic, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and even Japanese. LOL You need to travel more and realize that most black Americans don't commit crimes or live in urban ghettos. If you don't know that you need to check DOJ statistics and compare that to the fact there are about 38 million of us. I don't care about rates, higher rates does not constitute a majority or even 1/3 or 1/4 of a population...it is just that, a rate.

Grow up.

Dragon Horse said at July 13, 2008 7:25 AM:

Randall said:

"Cognitive tools: I would advise learning physics, mathematics, computer programming, and several other mind stretchers..."

I would agree that taking some basic programming and taking math up to at least Calc I is a good idea. It helps your abstract thinking ability and most "good money careers" are math loaded...not all though. Any high pay job will involve a good deal of abstract thinking and attention to detail though (besides maybe Sales).

Physics...I'm not sure that is important outside of engineering. I read books about theoretical physics (I'm reading one by Brian Greene now), but it has no use in my daily life and I make a good salary (higher than average for my area which is one of the most expensive areas in the country). Physics as a major is next to useless unless you have have a PhD from a top 10 school. There is currently a oversupply of physicist in the U.S. (many of them foreign born)...there are quite a few stuck in Postdoc hell for a decade or so.

IT/Comp Sci are good practical fields still, even if the pay scale has shrunk you will never be without a job, even in a bad economy (I know from personal experience).

Jerry Martinson said at July 13, 2008 9:50 AM:

I think there is some benefit to learning a second language; it provides a deeper understanding of language and grammar. It helps you understand at least one other culture a bit better. It also helps on those few occasions when you have come across someone who happens to speak the same minor language that you have learned. However, I think the benefits of multilingual education (i.e. teaching second or third languages) in the US are often vastly overstated by its advocates. Making it a hard requirement for extensive knowledge of a foreign language for graduation to me seems ridiculous. There are different technical fields that are so vast then use English that there are effectively the same mental load as using a foreign language. I don't think having a mostly English monolingual US workforce is the problem with US "competitivity": the problem with US competitivity has been a vastly over-inflated value of the dollar.

The problem is that the average person like me working in industry does business with so many different countries at the same time that you'd need to know 20 different languages to do business if I were to attempt to converse in the native toungues. If one were to pick one or two languages to focus on, it'd probably be the wrong one (as is the case with me). Since almost all international business and technical work is now done in English, it would seem that it would be far easier for the rest of the world to continue to learn and use English (as they largely currently do). English is by far #1 in the world in terms of science, math, technology, diplomacy, entertainment, and business; it is difficult to be a serious scholar of these subjects any place in the world without being fluent in English. Because if this simple immersion, it is highly improbably that a native-English speaker will be able to speak another language as well as people in the rest of the world will be able to speak English. Despite the rise of other non-English countries relative to the US/UK etc..., this trend toward English as the dominant world language seems to be accelerating, not declining. In fact, some countries even teach higher-level math, engineering, computer science in English; sometimes starting in high-school.

Randall Parker said at July 13, 2008 12:05 PM:

Dragon Horse says:

I don't care about rates, higher rates does not constitute a majority or even 1/3 or 1/4 of a population...it is just that, a rate.

Well, you are over-optimistic there. Here from a report on the US Department of Justice web site we find that yes indeed the percentage of black males serving prison time is in the range that you dismiss.

An estimated 22% of black males ages 35 to 44 in 2001 had ever been confined in State or Federal prison, compared to 10.0% of Hispanic males and 3.5% of white males in the same age group.

About 1 in 3 black males, 1 in 6 Hispanic males, and 1 in 17 white males are expected to go to prison during their lifetime, if current incarceration rates remain unchanged.

How many never get caught? How many get a suspended sentence?

I could also get into the statistics about how black criminals prefer to prey on whites. Is it any wonder that even liberal-left white Obama supporters live in white flight suburbs?

Ali Birouti said at July 15, 2008 7:40 AM:

In response to Randall Parker's comment: "Malay kids: The Chinese have higher IQs. That is the biggest reason why the Chinese in Malaysian do better than the Malays." Are you saying that the Chinese race is superior (in IQ) to the Malay race? I'd think very carefully before saying such things. Environmental factors play a great role in shaping a human being.

Learning languages does not only give you the ability to say words in different languages. It enables you to understand the various cultures and peoples around you. The United States is made up of immigrants and therefore various cultures, knowing different languages lets you understand your neighbors.

In addition, the United States have fought wars all over the world. If you look back in time, the US has made many mistakes in their strategies to spread democracy across different nations, mainly because they did not understand the peoples and their cultures.

Common Americans vote for presidents that decide to fight these wars using the same common Americans that voted for them. If these Americans understood the different cultures around them, perhaps they can make better decisions when voting.

Sideways said at July 22, 2008 7:38 AM:

"Are you saying that the Chinese race is superior (in IQ) to the Malay race?"

It's not even close. Using the numbers for Singaporean Chinese, 108 to 92. That's similar to the black-white gap in America.

About the language thing: in Indonesia (which doesn't have most of the pro-Malay affirmative action Malaysia has)the 4% or so of the population that is Chinese controls more than 50% of the wealth. In some places (like near Java) they've stopped teaching their children Hokkien (their Chinese language) so they are mono-lingual.

Joao said at January 25, 2010 6:00 PM:

Multilingualism is not elitist (most Africans are multilingual) and monolinguism promotes close mindedness and ethnocentricity. And language learning is not just for business. Being multilingual helps connect people, and that does not mean that you have to travel to the other country to use it. Yes English is a very important language in the world of commerce, however it is not the most important language in the world. The world does not revolve around money, and there are so many other benefits that result from multilingualism. It helps recognize the beauty of other languages, which are so different than English. English is a very isolating language (look it up)compared to the rest of the world which has a very different grammar. Multilingualism also helps connect to another cultural group. It helps to sympathize with that Hispanic person next door, because instead of speaking random babble, they are saying coherent and meaningful thoughts.

I grew up trilingual (English, Portuguese, Spanish) and it is something that I would never give up. Spanish is an especially useful language. I don't know why anybody wouldn't want to speak the language that is spoken by 15% of the population, and is a very fast rising language. The key is to introduce the language early. For example, in Norway people start learning english and nynorsk (friend from norway told me this) in elementary school, while in the US, we learn other languages in High school, making it ten times more difficult to learn.

Rob: Some Spanish speaking nations do have a much lower IQ, however this is mostly an environmental factor as the poor living conditions resulted from exploitations of resources and historical conflicts. We are all humans, are genetic variation varies so little that two monkeys from the same tribe(?) have more genetic variation than a person from Europe and Africa. Also languages affect little on how you do cognitively, look at Uruguay or Argentina, both very developed Latin American Countries. Whites generally have higher IQs and lower crime rates because historically, they were put in a better position than the blacks and hispanics that came to this country.

Stephen: YES! (look up cognitive linguistics and Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). It is not just good for the marketplace, it is good for your brain. We might be the one of the most developed countries in the world, be we have wreaked so much havoc worldwide, in part because of our limited perception, such as meaningless war and ruining other countries. Where my mom comes from (Dominican Republic), it is a widely accepted fact that the USAID controls the tiny, corrupt country. This is because they US freed them from Trujillo (a dictator) whom they instated in the first place just to make sure that the communists wouldn't gain a foothold. He ended up killing 30,000 people in the parsely massacre, not even counting the other thousands that died. The current state of the country is not much better, all because of the USA's general carelessness towards to country.

Sad but true: http://www.tallrite.com/weblog/blogimages/refs2006/AmericanWorld.gif

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