James Garfield was a professor of classics before he became the20th American president. Wanting to show his abilities with foreignlanguages, he amused friends by simultaneously translating anEnglish document into Greek with his left hand and into Latin withhis right hand.
George W. Bush can’t match the same kind of multilingualism,although he did make use of his limited Spanish in the 2000election and, since becoming president, when addressing Latinogroups.
John Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee, may not be able tomatch Garfield’s dexterity with languages, but his knowledge ofFrench is much better than Bush’s Spanish. Unfortunately for himand the country, he is being very coy about his fluency in French,treating it as a liability. Bilingualism is an asset for anAmerican political leader and a potential president.
Given that the United States is the sole superpower in amultilingual world, a president fluent in more than one languagewould in all likelihood do a better job than a monolingual one.
Although the president of the United States can afford to hireinterpreters, and must do so to communicate with world leaders,knowing a second language has many positive aspects, which shouldbe celebrated. Fluency in a foreign language translates intoknowledge of the culture and an understanding of the people wholive 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 shockedby cultural traits that differ from their own native culture.
Knowledge of a major language is very useful, particularly ifit’s spoken in many countries. That’s the case of French, spoken inFrance, Canada and a number of African countries. Although it haslost the label of lingua franca to English, French remains a veryimportant language in the world. French is spoken by 500 millionpeople as their first or second language.
For Kerry, his knowledge of French has already been beneficialat both a personal and a professional level. He used French tocommunicate with Teresa Heinz early in their relationship and heeventually married her.
When Kerry served in Vietnam, he was apparently able to readFrench maps and that knowledge may have helped him save lives.
Even though Bush has used his Spanish to great politicaladvantage, the GOP has taken a different stand on English-Frenchbilingualism. Because the French did not support the U.S. wareffort in Iraq, a great deal of anti-French sentiment hasoccurred.
The negative feelings against the French and their languagereached pettiness when a Republican member of Congress pushed forchanging the names of french fries and french toast to freedomfries and freedom toast, implying that being French and knowing theFrench language translated into lack of patriotism.
To be sure, France was not alone in pushing for a different wayof dealing with Saddam Hussein. In fact, most countries did notsupport the invasion. Yet none of the other major countries such asGermany, Russia, China and others were the subject of theantagonism the French language and France had to endure.
The ironic thing is that the plan proposed by France and manyother countries to allow U.N. inspectors more time to find theweapons of mass destruction, and not immediately attack Iraq,turned out to have been a much wiser course of action. Bush’srecent overtures to the United Nations would suggest that Francewas on target.
Although Kerry continues to insist on a greater U.N. role in theIraq situation – the French way – he keeps his distance fromFrance. Kerry seems to think that his knowledge of French is adisadvantage.
Fear of being labeled French has made Kerry lie low with hisknowledge of and links to France. In addition, since Bush, in hisads, has tried to label Kerry as liberal, linking him to Francewould help confirm him as a left-winger, given France’s liberalgovernment.
Kerry’s distance from French is a calculated attempt not toalienate the very conservative element of the American electorate.That’s politically foolish since Kerry does not have a chance withthose voters.
It’s also disappointing to intelligent voters who understandthat world problems will be solved with knowledge – linguisticknowledge and other types – rather than the ignorance.
Domenico Maceri is a columnist for www.HispanicVista.com and ateacher of foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in SantaMaria, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune InformationServices.