Obama Got It Wrong About Language

John ArmstrongCulture

A few weeks ago Senator Barack Obama, speaking in Georgia, said that: "Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English, because they will learn English, you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish." This statement raises a number of compelling questions that must be a part of our cultural dialog at this important time in American history.

For example, when Barack Obama talks about change what does he really want to change? This kind of statement sounds like his view of change goes far beyond getting things done in Washington politically. He apparently wants to change the country in some rather profound ways in terms of culture and identity.

The remark came in the midst of a larger effort by the campaign to appeal for Hispanic support. And all of this is a part of the larger debate about illegal immigration. Both McCain and Obama have similar views about immigration, if the facts are studied carefully, but they clearly do not agree about the identity and culture of America. This language issue reveals this difference very powerfully.

Think about the language debate with me for just a few moments. Obama is suggesting that we need to become more European in our approach and thus learn a "second language" in some official, or unofficial, way. Schools need to embrace this view and mainstream it. This is done in most European countries. 

I have a special interest in this subject since my son was a bi-lingual public school teacher for two years at the first and second grade level. Obama’s rhetoric and approach seems to support bi-lingual education when the majority of studies and voter referendums have rejected it. But the overwhelming majority of Americans, including the vast majority of Hispanics, have rejected Obama’s appeals in past forms. People want their kids immersed in English so that they can make it in our wide-open society. A survey of Latinos in Los Angeles showed that in the year 2000 98% of U.S. born Latino parents, and 96% of foreign-born Latino parents, agreed that their children should be taught English in school. In the same survey they rejected the need to teach Spanish in school.

A major problem with Obama’s assertion is that he assumes the vast majority of immigrant kids are learning English easily enough so that a "second language" approach would be a great thing to stress in our grammar schools. Not so fast, please. One of the reasons California voters overwhelming approved Proposition 227 in 1998 was in order to eliminate bi-lingual classes. Parents understood clearly that such an education victimizes immigrant kids because they are put at a real disadvantage to other Americans in the process.

Leslie Sanchez, Sanchez
a CNN contributor and the founder of the Hispanic communications research firm, Impacto Group LLC, adds, "English is the language of liberty," not just the language of commerce. She writes: "The Western values of which most of us are so rightly proud—equality, the right to pursue happiness, freedom of worship and religion—come to us from the English-speaking world. From the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence and beyond, it is the English-speaking world that has continually promoted the democratic ideals of freedom."

Look, English really is the common language of our unique American way of life and civilization. Natan Sharansky, winner of the highest civilian award given in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, argues in a new book that defending identity is crucial to truly protecting democracy (Natan Sharansky,Sharansky
with Shira Wolosky Weiss, Defending Identity. Public Affairs: New York, 2008).

Because this is a free country people can speak any language they want. But if they choose not to learn English it will have immense impact on their lives if they remain in America. To create a public school system that takes away the wishes of parents to have their children learn English first and foremost is to remove another important freedom from the people and to undermine a common culture that makes unity possible in our country.

Obama runs on change, big change! If this is the kind of change he wants, and it seems clear that he does, then this is not simply about changing the climate in Washington but about making America more like Europe than about the America that has had a common language and blended unique identity for more than two centuries now. Sanchez rightly concludes: "That’s not good for anyone, least of all the Hispanic community that Barack Obama is trying to connect with in such a misguided way." Unless I can hear something that is more compelling from Senator Obama I see this as another wrong-headed liberal notion about culture that will continue to break down the core of what makes our country e pluribus unum. This liberal over-celebration of diversity, which of course we must protect if we want to keep personal freedom intact, will kill us if it is pushed this far since the train will likely not stop once we leave this station.