Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Sin of Polylingualism

This seems to be a non sequitur:

Barack Obama said during a town hall meeting in Georgia on Tuesday: "It’s embarrassing 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." . . .

So if Obama is embarrassed by Americans who can't speak French or German or Spanish, is he embarrassed by immigrants to the United States who can't speak English?

Obama's point is that we can't have an outstanding educational system when we don't seek to teach languages. Since he's running for president of the United States and not the president of a non-English speaking country that sends lots of its population here, it would make sense for him to focus on the U.S. And anyway, I would imagine that what he says about the educational system in the U.S. would hold for any other country that wants to create the world's best educational system.

In any event, ours is not a poor country that sends its population to a rich country in search of jobs, or a conflict-ridden country whose population seeks other shores for safety. We're rich and peaceful. So even if other countries do not have the resources to better their educational systems, why shouldn't we channel our resources into a stronger educational system?

There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction among some that any comparisons drawn to Europe or Europeans in a way that criticizes the U.S. is somehow unpatriotic or snobbish. Leaving aside for a moment that this reaction bespeaks an uncritical kind of patriotism -- American is superior, don't blame America first, we bailed out Europe, they're socialists, look at their unemployment rates, etc. -- it's also unfortunate from a practical perspective: just as we embrace the federal system of government because the states can experiment with policies that, if successful, can be exported to other states or nationally, so too can we look to other countries who have tackled problems successfully. Why we can't learn from the examples set by other countries is beyond me.

Finally, the nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment in McCormack's post is unmistakable. The implicit argument is that immigrants should learn English (dammit)! But again, this has nothing to do with whether American children would do well to be polylingual.

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