Does Barack Obama Speak Spanish?

Barack Obama wants everyone to learn Spanish. He announced in Georgia yesterday that he agrees that immigrants to the United States should learn English. That’s a relief. Maybe he’s taken a stand that will hold firm for the duration of his campaign. But this was merely a prelude to his main point. Obama also thinks that every child in America needs to learn Spanish.

What tortured logic leads him to this conclusion? Reconstructed in the form of an argument, here’s the way he reasoned:

  1. If I, Barack Obama, am embarrassed by the fact that most Americans speak only one language, then all Americans should learn Spanish.
  2. I, Barack Obama, am embarrassed by the fact that most Americans speak only one language.
  3. Therefore, all Americans should learn Spanish.

Obama is embarrassed; so I should be teaching my children to speak Spanish. Interesting. I’m starting to feel embarrassed by the logic exhibited by the presidential nominee of a major American party.

Of course, Obama thinks we all should be embarrassed about our monolingualism. Why? Because, as he put it, “when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German, but when we go over there, all we can say is ‘merci beaucoup.'” This got him some laughs from some people in the audience, maybe because they share in his embarrassment.

I’m not sure we should feel embarrassed. At any rate, maybe we should be proud of America’s influence in the world, an influence that has been so positive that people all over the world desire to learn English.

I, frankly, would be just as pleased to be as fluent in German or French as I am in Spanish (having lived in Mexico for six years). I’ve studied German, French, Swedish, and Russian, with mixed results. (I’ve visited China twice, but there’s little hope of my learning Mandarin.) So put me down in support of foreign language learning.

Still, I can’t join Obama in saying that American parents “need to make sure” that their children can speak Spanish. Here’s one reason. If a friend made this proposal in the course of casual conversation, I would think it a little exaggerated. But I’d take seriously the spirit of his admonition, because it would most naturally mean, in that context, that the responsibility to educate children to learn Spanish belongs to their parents. Obama, however, is a politician running for high office. So when he declares, during a campaign speech, that parents “need to make sure” that their children speak Spanish, he means something stronger. He means that if parents don’t ensure that their children speak Spanish, then the federal government may have to step in to make it happen.

This is rich. Tell parents what they should be doing as parents, as if it’s entirely up to them whether to go with his advice. But that’s not what Obama really has in mind. He was speaking as a politician. His words even had a totalitarian tone. If he’s serious, what he said is an indication of how he would reform education in America.

Of course, Obama may not be any more sincere than most politicians. I don’t know when he got this idea that American children should all be learning Spanish. Maybe it occurred to him over the weekend while he was meeting with strategists about how to attract the hispanic vote. There’s an easy way to find out. Just ask Obama’s children a few questions in Spanish.

An even better test would be to check up on Obama’s own proficiency in Spanish. I’d like to hear him give one speech in Spanish, without the use of a teleprompter or a manuscript. I suspect that would be more entertaining than any speech he’s given in English.


Here’s an irony for you. Obama mentions the Europeans who come over here and speak English in addition to German and French. I’ve traveled extensively in Europe. The English spoken in western Europe is not uniformly top-notch, although the scope of English-speaking proficiency is impressive. Now, Obama wants us to learn Spanish. Why? Because so many people south of the border have emigrated to the United States, and they don’t speak English. So maybe it’s not los Norteamericanos that Obama should be comparing with Europeans. He may think that Americans are dolts because they’re not bilingual. But at least they speak English!

The irony deepens. Most Europeans come over to visit, practice their English with us, and then return home, happy as clams. In contrast, hoards of Spanish-only speakers stream across our borders, not to visit, but to live and work here illegally. And we’re expected to learn Spanish for their sake!

Most legal immigrants from Mexico, Central America and South America have adopted the U.S. as their new home with a deep desire to assimilate. They have sought to learn English and taken pains to ensure that their children learn English. And opportunities for them to learn English have been made conveniently available. So it isn’t for their sake that every other American needs to learn Spanish.

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