Presidential Languages (or Lack Thereof)

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It isn’t that a U.S. president who spoke two or more languages would be wiser, humbler, or even more learned than one who didn’t. Such a person would not necessarily respect other countries and cultures, support language education, or recognize the gifts that immigrants can bring. Yet he or she could strengthen and enrich the country in the following ways.

Language learning would become a recognized good. A president who learned a second language would inspire others do do the same, or at least deflate the notion that speaking languages other than English makes you un-American. Learning languages and being American (i.e., United States American) would come together.

A president who had learned a second language at home–for instance, from immigrant parents or grandparents–would understand what it means to translate from language to language, country to country, generation to generation; to switch languages upon entering and leaving the home; to know certain registers of a language but not others; to have a feeling for a language and its cadences; and more.

A president who had learned a second language through study would know what it was like to understand little or nothing, initially, of what others were saying, and then come to understand it over time. Such a president would recognize that understanding comes gradually and is never complete.

A president who spoke more than one language would earn respect both abroad and at home, for a good reason: he or she does not expect others to speak English all the time but can return the linguistic gesture.

Granted, a president could have all of these qualities–and more–without knowing a second language. About half of the U.S. presidents so far knew at least one language besides English, or a little of a language–but many esteemed ones, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, did not. John Quincy Adams studied many languages, including Dutch, Italian, and Russian, but his intellectual appetite was rare. Barack Obama speaks only English (and a little Indonesian, perhaps) but has tried many languages, even a few phrases here and there.

Far on the other end of things, Trump might know a little Gaelic (from his mother’s side of the family) and German (from his father’s), but I see no sign that he takes interest in these languages or does anything to increase his knowledge of them. If he did, his presidential demeanor and attitude would be different.

Once again: learning languages does not make you a better person, but it does make you aware of things you don’t know. Besides that, it’s interesting, and it’s good to do interesting things and learn to do them better, whether you’re a president, teacher, high school student, professional athlete, train conductor, magician, dolphin, or cat.

Yes, and despite the apparent disregard for languages at the presidential level, young people today have far more ways to study abroad, practice languages, meet native speakers, etc., than they did a few decades ago. Dual language schools have become increasingly common; study-abroad programs have taken new forms. Languages are not on the wane in the U.S., but they need more recognition. They need to inform the way we think and speak.

Still, I see small signs of an uplift in public discussion: more calls for listening to others, more admission of fallibility, more recognition of the issues at stake. Maybe in the upcoming elections we (across the political divides) will choose leaders who not only know things about the world but seek, in their daily work and leisure, to learn more. Maybe we will begin by doing the same ourselves. Maybe intellectual life, long demeaned in the U.S., will find its way over time to new respect and honor. And maybe languages will play a part.

A little addendum: Speaking of languages, I can now say the rather meaningless sentence “The most important thing is what we are doing now” in Hungarian: “A legfontosabb dolog az, amit most csinálunk.” Six months ago I could have memorized it, but now I understand more of the grammar and can put it together logically. “Fontos” means “important”; to say “more important,” you add the suffix “-abb,” and to say “most important,” you add the prefix “leg-” to this. “Dolog” can mean “matter,” “thing,” or “work.” “Amit” (“which” or “that”) is a subordinating conjunction consisting of “mit” (“what”) and the prefix “a-.” You can form other subordinating conjunctions in a similar manner: “ahol,” “amikor,” etc. Bit by bit, the language is taking shape in my mind.

 

In the photo above, Minnaloushe is looking intently at the Hungarian word “macska.” You can see from the slight blur that this did not last long.

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. Eirenaios

     /  August 24, 2018

    Luckily, Simone Weil’s “Prélude à une déclaration des devoirs envers l’être humain” was translated into English:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Need_for_Roots
    But I wonder how many US presidents have ever read it.
    It was also translated into many more languages, but I wonder how many presidents of other nations have ever read it:

    As Karl Popper wrote:
    I am inclined to think that rulers have rarely been above the average, either morally or intellectually, and often below it.
    -The open society and its enemies, chapter 7.

    Reply
  2. Deirdre

     /  August 25, 2018

    I lived in Hungary for two years when I taught English there (a long time ago), and much like your cat, I only picked up words here and there. Sentence structure & verb conjugations baffled me! And I wish second language learning in the US started in kindergarten, not high school.

    Reply
  3. Eirenaios Philalethes

     /  August 26, 2018

    Dear Diana,

    you are too kind and should have not thanked me for what was not even a comment.

    It is I, who should thank you for what you wrote; because you lent us your beautiful clear eyes, able to see that far, and your noble mind, that can understand so much.
    Your knowledge of many languages, your experience in teaching both youths and adults, your fine artistic sensibility, cultivated through silent contemplation of landscapes, through studying of lights and shadows for the right camera shot, your deep pondering over the concepts and words you finally compose in your writings, all are precious gifts, that your affectionate readers happily receive.

    I have understood much, thanks to this article of yours on what the study, knowledge, mastery of a foreign language can give to a person.

    Here is a minor criticism to it.
    Please, do not take it negatively, as its weight is just a tiny fraction of the high value I assign to your writing.

    It seems to me that your arguing is too respectful, too gentle, too kind.

    I feel that the reasons a president – or any other person, though with less responsibility – should have for knowing foreing languages are much stronger than those you wrote.

    In my mental search for a support to my feeling, I thought about ancient sources: maybe Odysseus, who had to speak with so many people during his voyage to far-way seas; or the speeches that Herodotus Alikarnasseoys pretended were given by ancient kings.

    But I did not pushed my search up to taking those books from the shelves, since I thought that even old and strong references are not needed, in front of such an evidence.

    We are humans and belong to a social species. We need to communicate with others. Our leaders need it even more.

    Mastering a foreign language does not mean only been able to communicate to more people.
    It means also understanding and acknowledging, and much more.

    Biologists and ethologists, like Konrad Lorenz, taught us to understand animal behaviour without anthropomorphizing it.
    And even economics and pharmacology now openly confirm the importance of a deep knowledge of the world of animals.
    I mean to say that we must try to understand even animals.

    Though the human mind has a natural predisposition to language, as Steven Pinker writes in his book “The language instinct”, the way a language has evolved its structure owes much to traditions and culture of people, its history.
    Learning a foreing language is fundamental, as it teaches us to adapt our thinking to others.

    Babies live a first stage of primary egotism, for some three years.
    Then they must come to grips with OTHERS, because we cannot live alone. And if something goes wrong in this process, a socially disordered person will come out.

    In learning foreign languages we make an effort to think in ways far from our customary ones; and we strive to accept different values, habits, rites; even at the level of measuring time (different people have different holidays), and counting (in French, 80 is not 8 tens, but 4 scores).
    And this difference cannot remain just superficial, if we want to master that language, but must settle down and root itself deeply at the level of those same words we use in common and frequent exchanges with others, that is at a basic level, as basic as our way of moving would be.
    Learning a foreign language is such an involving process as it would be learning how to move around in a world where people would not walk on foot but crawled: we cannot do it absent-mindedly; at least not in the beginning, until we have mastered it. Finally we shall be able to control it absent-mindedly.

    I believe that this is something we cannot give up, in our education from the baby’s primary egotism towards the grown-up behaviour of a fully civilised person who can live responsibly together with others.

    And this hardly needs justification, as there is no need to justify why we need to learn walking around. Right: one should be able to live fully on a wheelchair, and civilisation implies making everything accessible to people on wheelchairs.
    But requesting that we teach babies how to walk needs no explicit justification.

    Reply
  4. Eirenaios Philalethes

     /  August 26, 2018

    Let me correct one of my mistakes:
    Mastering a foreign language does not mean only been able to communicate to more people.
    -> being,

    Shortly: one cannot learn a foreign language if one does not love it, at least somewhat; If one does not love others, just a little.

    Reply
    • Yes, I see: I should have saved “thank you for the comment” until now! Thank you for everything you said here.

      I would like to pick up on one point: “Learning a foreign language is such an involving process as it would be learning how to move around in a world where people would not walk on foot but crawled: we cannot do it absent-mindedly; at least not in the beginning, until we have mastered it. Finally we shall be able to control it absent-mindedly.”

      Yes, learning a language requires not only deliberate work, but one’s entire being; just as one cannot do it absent-mindedly, one cannot do it partially. I have often heard people say, “I took four years of Spanish but learned close to nothing.” How does that happen? To learn a language, you must go beyond doing the homework for your language class. You must not only listen to the language and converse in it (when and where possible) but also play with it in your mind, talk to yourself in it, make puns with it, look into the words and their origins, memorize poems in it, sing songs in it, dance to it, read street signs in it, play games in it, learn colloquial expressions in it, and more. If you do all of that, you will learn something even in a few months, never mind four years.

      Reply

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