Obama: Aprende Espanol!

| Wed Jul. 9, 2008 8:49 AM PDT

Jonathan Martin is calling this clip "tomorrow's anti-Obama email today."

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And in fact, its title on YouTube is "Barack Obama: Your Children Should Learn To Speak Spanish." Of course, Obama's point is not that we should roll over in the face of the alien invasion from Mexico (!!!). His point is that it would serve Americans well to integrate themselves further into the world community, and that starts by becoming bilingual, which far too few Americans are.

Over at Foreign Policy's blog, Passport, Blake Hounshell has some interesting thoughts on why Obama's sentiments are admirable but wrongheaded.

The cosmopolitan in me says, "Right on." Americans are notoriously poor with language, and it reflects badly on us.

But my inner behavioral economist tells me that Obama has identified a solution in search of a problem. After all, Americans are just behaving rationally. Europeans need to learn foreign languages because they live much closer to one another, are more integrated economically...

Most Americans, in contrast, don't really need to learn a foreign language: Many foreigners speak English, and the amount of bilingual jobs available is relatively small. It's a nice skill to have, but acquiring working-level fluency in a second or third language is expensive and time consuming, and often the potential payoff isn't worth it.

Blake points out that if knowledge of Mandarin or Hindi becomes vital for the American economy in 50 or 25 or 15 years, Americans will learn those languages. Fair enough.

Let me only add that Obama shows a fair amount of confidence and grace in the face of a gaffe — he almost certainly knew that statement was problematic as soon as he said it, but decided not to back down. A far better gaffe, if you can call it that, than McCain's latest.

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