Thursday, July 10, 2008

Enseñe Los Niños Bien - Barack Obama's Spanish Mandate

I snapped this picture at the Feria in Seville, Spain, a couple of years ago. We had a very lovely time there, and also discovered a delicious drink which is made by taking a bottle of Domecq La Ina Sherry in one hand and a bottle of 7-Up in the other, and pouring equal portions in a tall glass. Pleasant memories help when faced with annoying realities such Barack as Obama's Spanish mandate.

Obama's latest is that your children must learn Spanish. I beg to differ. I spent a fair amount of time in my youth learning Spanish, and based on my experiences I can't recommend it as an activity that is worthy of your children's time. Personally, I can't think of a more defining moment for the uselessness of Spanish than what happened the year that Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban whose mother died trying to achieve freedom off the shores of Miami, was the big story.

Just around the time that a wacked out Janet Reno sent a SWAT team to save young Gonzalez from the perils of Capitalism by returning the child to his uncle in Cuba, I turned to Univision for news of Elian. For whatever reason, Don Francisco from Sabado Gigante was reporting, and he had dug up one of Elian's other uncles, living in Los Angeles, for an interview. The interview started, conducted in Spanish of course. Unfortunately, after a number of "excuses me's?" and "pardon's?" it became obvious that Don Francisco, speaking in Spanish that was Cuban via Miami, and Elian's Uncle, Cuban via Los Angeles, were absolutely unable to understand the other. Frustrated, but rational, the two switched to English for the rest of the interview, which completely solved their problem.

I also remember the time that I went to visit a friend in Bolivia with two small kids in tow, and when it was time to leave, all aviation had been shut down in the country. I ended up taking a bus all night through the Andes to catch my flight back to the US, and was happy when we had a rest stop in the wee hours of the morning. It was pretty rustic at that stop, the facilities being squatting behind the bus, and native enough that a number of the bus riders were ordering plastic baskets of coca leaves for a midnight munch. Spanish? Useless. All the people at the rest stop spoke only Quechua, the ancient pre-Incan language of the Andes. As businessmen, however, they did understand money and pointing, and I managed to get three bottles of the local version of Coca-Cola without much problem. By dawn I was in La Paz at a nice Sheraton, where Spanish worked just fine, but I imagine I could have spoken English and they would have understood me.

Also instructive was my first day at a college internship at a company in Spain. Having had my Spanish tested and approved before I left, and confident of my Spanish skills after many trips to Mexico, I felt a deep sinking feeling when--after successful introductions to my boss and his boss--I could barely understand a word that the two of them spoke. Eventually--likely after they noticed my look of dismay--they turned to me, and explained (in perfect Castilian) that I should not be concerned, they were just speaking Catalan. In fact, most of Barcelona preferred to speak Catalan, Spanish being the language of people from outside the region. By the end of the summer, I was understanding Catalan, too, but I couldn't learn how to pronounce it right. My friends (none of whom spoke English) were endlessly amused.

My latest venture with Spanish was with the yardmen a couple of weeks ago. They were busy digging up the flower beds, and I wanted to point out the good plants from the bad. Unfortunately, I realized that I never learned the words for "hedge," "evergreen," "weed," "impatiens" or "hosta," so several very nice plants disappeared at their hands. Of course, Spanish words for specific objects vary wildly from country to country, so even if I had learned the words somewhere along the line, I might have ended up like Don Francisco, being unable to communicate at all.

I am looking forward to some of Barack's speeches in Spanish, which I suppose will be next. I hope his Spanish is somewhat better than Jimmy Carter's. When Jimmy Carter was President, he loved to speak in Spanish, really bad Spanish, and listening to it was a painful, painful experience, and undoubtably a chance for the Spanish-speaking world to practice its diplomatic skills by refraining from comment. I am also waiting to hear Barack's kids give an interview to Telemundo's equivalent of Access Hollywood, to see whether Obama has put his money where his mouth is. Whatever the case, after the interview receives wide play he will toss the segment under the bus, pronouncing it as "a mistake."

Even Jesse Jackson Sr. is getting a little annoyed with Barack Obama telling Americans how to live our lives. The plantation days are long over, and Barack Obama--who's already flirted with the concept of involuntary servitude in his call for mandatory public service for teens--should realize that here in the Land of the Free, law abiding Americans can choose capably a life that best suits them, and entirely without his help.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not quite sure what your point is. Are you claiming that we Americans should simply stick to English and let the rest of the world learn our language? You have obviously traveled as demonstrated by your picture in Sevilla. Is it right for an American to go to Spain and expect that everyone there speaks English? We have been hampered by our isolation. Every person in Europe can travel the distance of state to state and be immersed in a new country, new language, and new culture. We Americans should start accepting that the world is not ours alone and by emphasizing the value of other languages we can take the first step. Language requirements can help America recognize that it is ok to look to appreciate, recognize and value other cultures and other people. All you made a valid attempt to translate your experience in Sevilla to English it is rare that you can capture the vividness and excitement of Jerez sin la lengua de Andalucia

Jul 10, 2008, 8:35:00 AM  
Blogger El Rider said...

I was once fluent in French, that was wonderful in Paris but useless in the rest of the world, outside of certain snooty parts of Canada and some former French colonies. I still have the occasional dream in French and it did turn up in some dealings with European traders, all of whom speak excellent English. Ask anybody with a pilots license if there is a language requirement, you will find out that licensed pilots are required to speak English. That's right English.
Overall it's nice to know one or more foreign languages but not speaking those languages takes little away from a person, a second language for an adult is largely a matter of memorization rather than understanding. Sure being able to converse with individuals in their native tongue can help people understand others however if your strength is memorization you may not understand the context of your's and other's experiences well enough to undestand them.

It has been reported that Sen. Obama does not speak any foreign language, meaning that he knows less on that subject than the majority of American high school students and about 90% of high school Juniors in Wilmette. Barack Obama - dumber than a seventeen year old, that sounds like a game show.

Jul 10, 2008, 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Publia said...

Anonymous, my point is that why is Barack Obama telling everyone that their kids should learn Spanish? I think that was the call of my parent's generation. Today, it may not be worth learning Spanish at all. El rider makes the point that Mr. Obama speaks no second language, and my additional point is that Mr. Obama likes to tell people what to do, even when what he says is necessary isn't particularly useful. Having never visited Spain without being able to speak Spanish, I couldn't comment on what it would be like to only speak English in that country, but I imagine a person would do fine. In fact, when I am in Spain, people often speak French to me for who knows what reason. It's the worst to be sleeping and have some hotel maid come in, speak French to you, and struggle to answer in French because you're too sleepy to realize you could speak Spanish to her.

For the record I spent a fair amount of time in school studying language, and I don't think it is necessarily worth the time. My Italian is okay, my Portuguese isn't so great, I do seem to be able to be understood in France, and when I attempt German it has the magical effect of making the listener reply in perfect English. Basically, when I go to another country I usually take some time to speak the language. Did I mention that I also studied Latin? I am not so sure what current requirements are, but it used to be that no good college let you in without language study as a pre-requisite. They may have dropped that now.

While I have spent a fair amount of time in Europe, unfortunately, I can't comment on Jerez because I've never been there. As el rider points out, English is now the world standard, and is basically the new Latin. I have people on 4 continents on my Google Talk, and every one of them communicates with me in English.

Wherever I go to Europe, without fail, people stop me on the street and ask me for directions. That one I really can't figure out, but I admit I do feel good when I can answer them in whatever language they have asked their question,

Jul 10, 2008, 4:20:00 PM  

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