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July 10, 2008

Obama's Bullshit on Bilingualism

Defending his claim that American parents must make sure their children also speak Spanish in addition to the actual language of this country, Barack Obama claimed this would help kids eventually secure jobs. And that learning a second language was a good thing in any event.

Taking the latter point first -- it's true. Learning a second language is undeniably a good thing. The trouble is, learning any hard-to-master skill or field of knowledge is undeniably a good thing. There are few adults or kids who could not benefit from additional learning. Adults might go to community college to finally puzzle out the calculus that had baffled them as youngsters (or that they had never been exposed to at all). Kids might elect to take statistics or economics courses, both for the natural brain-building power of dealing with any difficult field, as well as the usefulness of those fields in many careers. Most of us are scientifically illiterate, and could stand some more science in our lives, even if it's not directly related to our careers.

There are numerous things Americans should do to improve themselves, build their brains, and enhance (possibly) their career choices down the line.

But with all these competing possibilities for time and effort, why should learning Spanish be considered a priority for most, if not all? If learning a language, why not Chinese or Japanese? Why not German or French?

And why should anyone be required to learn a second language at all, just to navigate the mundane tasks of everyday living, such as shopping?

This is actually what Barack Obama means by Spanish helping your kids get a job.

He implies that learning Spanish will help one get a high-status job in international trade or negotiation. Certainly the Spanish-speaking world is a large one (though not nearly so large as the Chinese-speaking world). But even with expanding trade and expanding wealth in the Latin world, the number of jobs that require a Spanish-speaker in order to communicate with Spanish-only speaking transnational clients is tiny.

And given the huge number of native speakers of Spanish in this country, I'd say we have a surplus of talent in that area.

When Barack Obama says that speaking Spanish will help your kids get a job, he's telling the truth -- but the jobs he's talking about are fronting a McDonald's cash register, or working at Wal-Mart, or even just pumping gas.

Or doing pretty much anything at all. Because with the rise of a very large Spanish speaking minority, Spanish is rapidly becoming nearly essential for any job.

Most jobs previously required no facility in any foreign language at all. But now many jobs increasingly demand Spanish as a skill, due to the large and ever-growing of domestic Spanish-only speakers.

He's not talking about forcing your kids to learn Spanish to open up additional job opportunities. He's talking about forcing them to learn Spanish to simply be more competitive at jobs for which a second language was never previously a requirement, nor even much of a benefit. What you could do yesterday with just the native tongue at English, you now increasingly need some Spanish to do.

You're not gaining any new opportunities or benefits; you're just having to expend time and effort to do what you used to take for granted.

This is a dramatic shift, and most Americans, quite rightly, resist it. Obama, pandering to the Spanish-speaking lobby, instead embraces it, and demands that America change to better accommodate itself to its growing, and largely non-assimilating, cohort of Spanish-only speakers.

There are good and rational reasons to resist Obama's call for a bilingual American state. A single language is economically beneficial -- there are lesser transaction costs within the country, less frustration, less delay. Less money paid out, for example, to an employee on the payroll largely simply because he is fluent in Spanish.

And, of course, it is far easier, and hence far more desirable, for those of us who speak English only (or at least do not speak Spanish).

The Hispanic lobby and the left will of course denigrate such concerns -- "You're refusing to learn Spanish just because it's difficult for you and it's easier to live your English-only lifestyle?" -- but those are real and legitimate concerns. I may be willing to spend time and effort to learn a skill I want to learn, or to learn a skill which will earn me more money at my job, but I strongly object to having to learn a skill simply to be able to do all the things I could quite easily before without that skill. Time is money, and if I'm required to dedicate more of my time to learning a skill that yields me no benefit whatsoever, that's basically a tax on me, and either an expenditure of my working time (for which I am not getting paid) or an expenditure of my free time.

So yes -- what's easiest for me, what's easiest for the greatest number of Americans, is a valid political goal. Most people are not in favor of policies that will make their lives more difficult, more complex, and more frustrating.

It should also be noted that those who agitate for Spanish as effectively a second official language are also pushing that program because that's what's easiest for them. It's hard to learn English, of course, and millions of Spanish speakers would like not to be required to do so simply to live their lives and work at their jobs. They may choose to learn English -- most do -- but they'd like to not be absolutely required to do so. And they'd like to not be penalized in terms of time and frustration for not being fluent in English. And they'd like to not have many jobs closed off to them simply because they don't speak English.

Which is pretty much the way most those of us who speak English as our first language. We also don't want to be forced to learn Spanish simply to adapt to a growing population which speaks Spanish and little English.

And we'd like our kids to not be disadvantaged in the work-force simply because they haven't learned Spanish. If they prefer to invest their time in learning other skills -- or no skills at all; people are allowed to be lazy and underachieving, after all -- we'd like it if this were a penalty-free decision.

Obama feels otherwise. As he said, you're going to have to make certain your kids learn Spanish.

Struggles over language are among the most passionate political disputes. Wars have been fought over such concerns, as they're struggles over both culture -- whose will prevail? -- one one's children's futures -- whose children will be favored or disfavored due to the dominant language?

One group has to adapt to the other. That's what the struggle is all about -- who will have to invest the time and energy to learn a language not one's own, who will have to at least partly abandon his own native culture in favor of an alien one.

The left always casts this dispute as one that's easy to compromise -- we all just learn Spanish, too. But that's not a compromise. That's simply conceding the political dispute entirely. When one counter-argues that it's just as easy for Spanish-speakers to learn English as for English-speakers to learn Spanish (easier, actually, in terms of total manpower hours expended -- there still are a hell of a lot more English speakers than Spanish speakers in America), the left and the Hispanic lobby resorts to name-calling. Lazy. Racist. Unwilling to welcome our new citizens (or non-citizen illegal migrants). Etc.

Nope. What animates the Spanish-speaking lobby is precisely what animates the English-speaking lobby: We want to live our lives with a minimum of additional effort and frustration, and do not wish to make our lives more difficult in order to make the lives of another group easier.

Selfish, perhaps. But it's selfish on both sides. There is no additional moral virtue on the Spanish-as-a-second-official-language side. They want precisely what we English-first speakers want, and for precisely the same reasons -- given a cultural collision between two large groups of people living together, one group is going to have to exert a great deal more effort and also give up some of their own culture and traditions to adapt, and they'd prefer it be the rest of us.

The rest of us, for the same reason, prefer it to be them.

There is no very good reason to prefer the wishes of the minority over the wishes of the majority, despite the left's reflexive demands that the majority always adapt to the minority. And there are good reasons to resist it: having a single official language makes the nation work better, period.

It must also be noted that no other language in the history of America has actually threatened English's primacy. Immigrant groups have tended to be smallish, making the learning of English more or less a requirement for immigrant groups, at least within a generation. Spanish is the first foreign language to be spoken here in such great numbers that a Spanish-speaker doesn't necessarily have to learn English at all.

And, of course, there's the obvious fact that Spanish-speakers are largely new immigrants, those who have been permitted to become Americans. There is hardly anything oppressive about attaching the condition that new citizens must be fluent in English before we extend citizenship to them. It hardly seems unreasonable to say, "Yes, you can come to America, but please do not start making demands that we accommodate ourselves to you. After all, you have chosen to come to an English-speaking country; the rest of us already here did not choose to to come to a Spanish-speaking country."

This cannot be finessed, Captain Bullshit's insistence to the contrary. Either Hispanic immigrants will learn English and adopt that as their primary language (at least as the primary language outside the home), or the long-standing population of America will have to learn Spanish to better accommodate them. There is no objective reason to favor Spanish-speakers' convenience over English speakers.

Incidentally, Captain Bullshit's argument is self-defeating. Don't you worry about immigrants learning English, he lectures us, they will.

They will? Why should they, when the rest of the country is to become bilingual in Spanish? Certainly many will, but if Spanish and English are now effectively co-official-languages, the natural incentive to learn English would be greatly reduced. There are strong incentives to become fluent in English currently, and yet many schools have adopted bilingual education rather than accelerating kids' comprehension of English and making that the first priority.

I cannot comprehend how making Spanish a semi-official language of America will induce more Hispanic immigrants to undertake the inherently difficult task of learning a new language. If Americans currently choose, largely, to not learn Spanish because we don't need to and because, hell, we don't like doing more work than we have to, why on earth would we imagine that Spanish-first speakers will behave differently than we do when they have no particular incentive to learn a new language?

I think conservatives are understandably gun-shy about arguing self-interest. And so this argument is largely had on a very abstract, noble-minded plane. English is what binds us. English is the common currency of our shared American heritage. All of that.

That is true, but that avoids a more tangible and primary reason for resisting the move to a Spanish-English dual-language America. I resist it, primarily, because English-only (or at least English-first) is easier for me, and makes my life simpler -- and better.

Self-interest is hardly a noble reason to champion a policy. But it is nevertheless a good reason. And those arguing the contrary position are just as animated by simple self-interest, just as interested in making their own lives as convenient as possible. As we're all arguing, ultimately, from the point of self-interest, I cannot fathom why I should elevate someone else's convenience over my own. Especially as I, unlike an immigrant, have not chosen to relocate to a country with an alien language.

And, of course, English-speakers greatly outnumber Spanish-speakers, and thus can (and actually should) vote in favor of our preferences.

Instapundit quoted James Lileks as stating that muticulturalism was merely the process by which a formerly dominant culture transfers power to a newly dominant culture. I am not willing to accelerate that process, even if Barack Obama -- speaker of exactly one language, last I checked -- demands that I Change.


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posted by Ace at 03:00 PM

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