By Domenico Maceri / HispanicVista.com
James Garfield was a professor of classics before he became the 20th American president. One time, wanting to show his abilities with foreign languages, he amused friends by translating simultaneously an English document into Greek with his left hand and Latin with his right hand.
George W. Bush can’t match the same kind of multilingualism although he has made use of his limited Spanish in the 2000 election and also since becoming president when addressing Latino groups.
John Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee, may not be able to match Garfield’s dexterity with languages, but his knowledge of French is certainly a lot better than Bush’s Spanish. Unfortunately for him and the country, he is being very coy about his fluency in French, treating it as a liability. In fact, bilingualism is an asset for an American political leader and a potential president.
Given that the US is the sole superpower in a multilingual world, a president fluent in more than one language would in all likelihood do a better job than a monolingual one.
Although the president of the US can afford to hire interpreters and must do so to communicate with world leaders, knowing a second language has many positive aspects, which should be celebrated. Fluency in a foreign language translates into knowledge of the culture and the people where the language is spoken.
It also means that even with unfamiliar languages and cultures, a bilingual individual has an advantage over a monolingual person. Bilingual/bicultural individuals, for example, would not be shocked by cultural traits, which are different from their native culture.
Knowledge of a major language is very useful particularly if it’s spoken in many countries. That’s the case of French, spoken in France, Canada, and a number of African countries. Although it has lost the label of lingua franca to English, French remains a very important language in the world. It’s spoken by an estimated 500,000,000 people as their first or second language.
For Kerry, his knowledge of French has already been beneficial at the personal and professional level. He used French to communicate with Teresa Heinz early in their relationship and he eventually married her.
When Kerry served in Vietnam, he was apparently able to read French maps and that knowledge may have helped him save lives.
Although Bush has used his very weak Spanish to great political advantage, in the case of English-French bilingualism, the GOP has taken a different stand. Because the French did not support the US war effort in Iraq, a great deal of anti-French sentiment has occurred.
The negative feelings against the French and their language reached pettiness when the GOP pushed for changing the names of French fries and French toast to Freedom fries and Freedom toast. It sounds like being French and knowing the French language translates into lack of patriotism.
To be sure, France was not alone in pushing for a different way of dealing with Saddam Hussein. In fact, most countries did not support the invasion. Yet, none of the other major countries such as Germany, Russia, China, and others were the subject of the antagonism the French language and France had to endure.
The ironic thing is that the plan proposed by France and many other countries not to attack Iraq and allow UN inspectors more time to find the weapons of mass destruction turned out to have been a much wiser course of action. Bush’s recent overtures to the UN would suggest that the French way was on target.
Although Kerry continues to insist on a greater UN role in the Iraq situation—the French way— he keeps his distance from France. Kerry seems to think that his knowledge of French is a disadvantage.
Fear of being labeled French has made Kerry lie low with his knowledge and links to France. In addition, since Bush and his million dollars in advertising have tried to label Kerry as liberal, linking him to France would help confirm him as a left-winger, given France’s liberal government.
Kerry’s distance from French is a calculated attempt not to alienate the very conservative element of the American electorate. That’s politically foolish since Kerry does not have a chance with those voters.
It’s also disappointing to intelligent voters who understand that world problems will be solved with knowledge—linguistic knowledge and other types— rather than the ignorance exhibited by Bush’s cowboy diplomacy.
Domenico Maceri ([email protected]), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, a contributing columnist to HispanicVista.com (www.hispanicvista.com), teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA.
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