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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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

31 Responses to Does Barack Obama Speak Spanish?

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Hola Yriá,

    Me acuerdo con su mensaje. Las lenguas modernas son importantes. Y las me gusta estudiar. He estudiado español, allemán, idioma sueco, y ruso. En el año próximo tengo trabajo en Ucrania, donde hablan ruso.

    [?]Cuáles lenguas ha estudiado usted?

    I can understand your judgment that Americans are arrogant, though I think it is a mistake to say that about all. And I agree that it is unfortunate that citizens of the United States are called “Americans,” as if the citizens of North America, Central America, and South America are not Americans. Citizens of the U.S. cannot be called “North Americans” exclusively, since Canadians and Mexicans qualify as North Americans. Our country is called “The United States of America.” The most natural way to designate its citizens, then, is “Americans,” with the understanding that this is a convention and not the expression of a prejudice of any kind. Do you think another designation would be more appropriate? What would that be?

    I’m glad you visited my website and commented here. I hope you’ll return soon!

    -Doug Geivett

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  2. mayrita says:

    Comeee on! I am hispanic I speak english and I don’t have any problem in learning another language!! Is a way to occupy your children in doing something productive!! ;D Instead of consuming drugs !! (unfortunately)

    Like

  3. I disgree with the argument about not being important to learn spanish, as latins are becoming more and more abundant in the US (I´m mexican and live in Mexico), spanish, therefore, is becoming more important, any bilingual person has more opportunities than a monolingual, not only about jobs, but as part of education,using our brain to learn more languages, creates sinapsis between the neurons, it doesn’t hurt to learn more and to be able to communicate in different languages.
    I found a mistake in your argument, you wrote: ” 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 remind you that english was spread thanks to Great Britain, not to the US, you speak english because Great Britain colonized the US.
    The biggest problem I see in “americans” (meaning the citizens of the US and not all the inhabitants of the American Continent), is you are too arrogant.
    So I think that the americans that do not want to learn any other languaje, is because either you are too arrogant to try to do it or too dumb to be able to achieve it.

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  4. I see a number of issues here.

    The first one is about the Anglaphone (the English speaking) world being mostly monolingual which is true and is a negative. The negative being that monolingual speakers find it harder to get jobs in this increasingly global skill demanding world and add to that yes when Americans or us Brits travel we are often prejudged to frankly expect others to know our language than the other way around.

    The US in particular was rated badly in the amount of educational funds and training programs funded for improving language skills accross the the board, with only some areas directly attributed to tourism cutting the grade. I think that is what drove some of Obama’s speech.

    Spanish is the third largest “global link language” (ie a language that is often the first or second to an entire region) but because Brazil is Portuguese, the Spanish language is more and more becoming a global-link language for diplomatic and social reasons and not so much business – which is often the driving force for investment and importance of learning languages these days.

    The importance of learning the language that you migrate to is multiple. The first one is that it simply aids in the settlment, establishment and integration processes. With increased economic issues, radical nationalism grows and they are always anti-immigrant and will target those that do not speak as being examples of unwanted migration. Some nations are now requiring language skills as a requirement and that is fine, as long as there is that point about the elderly whom come along to be with their children and though they should give it a go, if they fail it should not be considered as some negative to the family’s status.

    I am both a Brit and a Spanish national and I live in Gibraltar and with family on both sides of the border I get to see the muliti-lingual subject all the time. I think that the need for increasing language skills to those key to either your work, social cohesion or the national identity is very important and will only become more so, my concern is that it takes time, effort from all parties, investment and support from government and that political games (partisanship, radical nationalism, etc) will simply either screw-up the process or confuse the importance.

    A last point, Obama is monolingual, CNN mentioned that apart from him, the last three monolingual Presidents were all Democrats as well, not that I could confirm either way.

    D Charles QC
    Gibraltar

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  5. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Anonymous,

    I agree with your stress on the value of knowing and using other languages. Thanks for visiting my blog, and for posting your comment!

    Like

  6. Anonymous says:

    I am a German-Mexican living in Mexico. I have an excellent level in Spanish. In fact, I speak Spanish so much that I have started to forget my mother language, German.

    As you can see, I also possess a rudimentary English.

    I do not see any reason as why Americans /must/ learn Spanish. They live in America, where English is much more useful, and are of course free of using whatever language they like the most. But I think that Mexicans, Europeans, the Chinese, and everybody else (including the Americans, but not particularly) should strive to speak as many languages as they can. It cultures the spirit and expands the understanding.

    When I read Shakespeare, I enjoy him in English. But sir, when I read Cervantes, or when I listen to de Vega’s verses, it would denote a faulted mind for me to read him in English.

    Like

  7. Doug Geivett says:

    Hola, Dick. ¡Se me hace que has aprendido mucho español!

    -Doug

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  8. Dick Cahill says:

    Me soy enseñando a hablar Español. Yo tango 68 anos de edad. Es una buena experiencia. Se lo recomiendo!

    Like

  9. Doug Geivett says:

    Noé, I quite agree with you. Ronald Reagan, of course, was pleased to speak of Los Estados Unidos como “una ciudad que brilla en la montaña.” Much longer ago, John Winthrop borrowed this language from Jesus (Mateo 5:14). The saying has always had a spiritual sense as applied to the United States, and it has been a mark of an American statesman’s faith in divine providence to use this phrase and with it to take seriously America’s peculiar responsibilities as a blessed nation.

    President Obama’s call to be multi-lingual, I believe, was hypocritical. I’ve never heard of him speaking anything else but English. Nor have I ever heard him refer to the United States as “a city, shining on a hill.”

    ¿Es una lástima, no?

    -Doug

    Like

  10. Noé Alarcón says:

    La verdad es que una bendición hablar por lo menos más de un idioma. Yo admiro a las personas que toman el tiempo y hacen un pequeño esfuerzo para poder comunicarse con otros. He leído todos los comentarios que vosotros habéis escrito y estoy en común acuerdo con LATINLICIOUS de eso que debemos de servirnos de la bandeja de plata que ya se nos ha puesto en la mesa.

    Hablar más de un idioma es como tener una joya preciada en nuestras vidas, y no una mala idea que el país más poderoso del mundo tenga gente más que monolingües.

    Seria maravilloso que Los Estados Unidos que es “Esa ciudad que brilla en la montaña” como dijo un celebre personaje Norte-Americano, realmente brillara un poco más al tener gente con más altos niveles de educación. Nuestros niños son el futuro de nuestra nación y no seria malo que todos los padres pensáramos en inculcarles la importancia de aprender más que solamente el idioma Ingles.

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  11. Jason Miller says:

    Well, Doug, I say why not learn spanish. It’s one of the top 3 used languages in the world and is the second most used language in America.

    Give me ONE reason as to how learning spanish is a counterproductive or nonbeneficial? And, please help me to understand why I am getting the impression that your argument is more personal than rational?

    Like

  12. Doug Geivett says:

    Wow, Cat, that’s a tricky situation. I wonder if your other half would be willing to teach you a little Spanish. You could go at your own pace, fitting it in with all the other things there are in life to do. I know of a number of beginner books for learning Spanish, and some online learning options, too.

    -Doug

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  13. Cat says:

    My mother-in-law whom is single, has been in this country now for 25 years and still cannot finish a sentence in English. When she comes to visit, I struggle to communicate with her because of this. I am an American, tried and true and she is from Central America. She has been my in-law now for 7 years and our communication has not gotten much better. She, as well as my other half, both think that I need to “get with the program” and learn to speak their language so we can all communicate better, although she is the only one in the family that is not English fluent. When she visits us, she speaks in Spanish to her son (my other half) in front of me and I feel sort of left out. She says that if I loved her son enough that I would learn to speak his first language.

    Her job opportunities are limited because of this communication barrier, and she struggles to stay employed. My other half feels sorry for her and over compensates to make her happy only making the situation worse. He is now proposing that she come and live with us. She is 3 years away from retirement age and is in good health, although she is a breast cancer survivor of about 8 or 9 years.

    I do agree that language divides us, but, I also have no doubt that if my lively hood were at stake because of my lack of communication skills, then I would undoubtedly learn the language and utilize it to the best of my ability.

    I’m sure that there are many others out there that are familiar with my situation…care to comment?

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  14. Language divides us, that’t the way its going. I hope that language would make us one, but that is hard.

    In these days of climate change, wars, and world financial trouble, we must help each other.

    I know President Obama would somehow diminish our suffering. But first, we must help ourselves be a better person. Even in little things, there are many little things that we could help the world. Our destiny in in our own hands.

    Like

  15. Doug Geivett says:

    Hello James,

    Please read the comments policy for this blog site. I have zero tolerance for calling someone, and I mean anyone, an “idiot.” I would be embarrassed to have such a sentiment tied to my name in public.

    Now, I don’t know whom you’re addressing. Most likely, you’re addressing me. But you misunderstood my original post. I have lived in another country. I was age 11 at the beginning and 17 at the last. My father had work there. I can assure you, I wasn’t going around shouting English at people. And none of the many Americans I met there did this either. None.

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  16. james says:

    You are a complete and utter idiot. I was surprised to read that you had actually left America. You americans make complete fools of yourself in other countries shouting english at people and your leader just calls for you to speak another language is that really such a bad thing he is not forcing you to he suggests it would be useful. God.

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  17. Doug Geivett says:

    I hear you, Silvio.

    -Doug

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  18. Silvio says:

    I speak both Spanish and English and get better pay for speaking both of them fluently. I am also teaching my United States born daughter spanish as well. Id rather all of you not teach yours kids Spanish as it increases our competition edge. Thanks. God Bless America!!

    Like

  19. Silvio says:

    I agree with President Obama in a world so small, its stupid of us to say, THIS IS AMERICA, WE SPEAK ENGLISH. when all the countries below the United States dont. I speak both english and spanish with spanish being my first language and it has helped me a lot obtaining jobs and furthering my education.

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  20. Joni Badeaux says:

    I think that is spanish speaking is ridiculous because we are Americans and speak English. Why are there Spanish people coming into the United States and changing our native Language. Some of us don’t understand them and we are forced to learn their language. Why not force them to learn ours. I come from a French background, my ancestors had to learn English so why can’t Spanish speaking people learn English and keep Us Americans English speaking country. I just hate to talk on the phone and say if I want English or Spanish why not French or any other. Chinese learns English, so why is Spanish so important that they get all the rights to a change in our English country.

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  21. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Pancho,

    ¡Es cierto! If you’re visiting another country, don’t presume that your hosts speak English. On the other hand, if they do speak English, acknowledge their versatility and thank them for their willingness to accommodate you.

    It’s one thing to rely on the English-speaking strengths of those in the travel industry around the world, and something quite different to expect locals to engage with you in English.

    There’s something to be said, in this day of globalism, for having a global language. That language is English, due as much to British colonialism as to American economic influence. So I wouldn’t say it’s always presumptuous to expect citizens of other countries to speak English. It depends on the nature of your business and the people you’re meeting.

    The “ugly American” image has more to do with other American indelicacies than with their foreign language limitations.

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  22. pancho says:

    Doug, you should have tried to address David’s point at the same time you were practicing your Spanish. You, as an intelligent person who has worked at learning other languages know that he has a point. Of course, not all Americans are “ugly american” boors but the attitude that everyone else MUST know Enlgish is still prevalent. I have relatives who get angry when they don’t get English accomodations in other countries. Well, let’s not sweat it. Let’s all just get our kids to work on a valuable language for the future, Chinese.

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  23. Doug Geivett says:

    David,

    ¡Me da mucho gusto tener un mensaje de usted en España! No conozco bien el pais, pero he visitado Barcelona para mi trabajo. Es un pais muy bonito.

    Por favor, perdona mi Español. Hay dos dificultades. El primero es que mi Español es tipico en México, y es muy diferente en comparison con Español en España. El secundo es que no tengo mucha experiencia escribiando el lenguaje.

    At least it was fun practicing my Spanish, which I’m sure is not as good as your English!

    -Doug

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  24. David says:

    I’m spanish. I live in the coast of valencia a very touristc area in south-east of spain.

    I know a lot of people from UK and the US. It’s strange when they don’t even try to speak three words of spanish. They address to me an another spanish people directly in english and i think that behavior is pretentious and arrogant because not all of course, but my sensation is that as country think that every person in the world speak their language.

    MMmmm… sorry for my english. 😉

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  25. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Rob,

    I especially like two points you make: (1) because of successful assimilation for over a century, and our geographical distance from many non-English-speaking countries, there has been little need for most Americans to learn other languages; and, (2) Americans who wish to learn other languages, but seldom or never travel to other countries, have little opportunity to practice and improve their foreign language skills. These are excellent points.

    Like you, I’ve found that efforts to learn a host language and culture are very appreciated in countries I visit (which is often for business purposes). That doesn’t constitute an urgent need for all Americans to master the non-English European languages.

    I might add that because of globalization, the world of commerce has grown smaller, and American affluence (relative to other countries) has made foreign travel possible and sometimes necessary. So for Americans with such responsibilities or opportunities, knowing another language or two is an advantage. But compared to our European counterparts, how often does the average, well-traveled American have occasion to use another language?

    Also, globalization and our Pacific border increases our exposure to the far east—China, Japan, Taiwan, and so forth. Obama’s rationale for learning western European languages could be applied in a case for learning Mandarin and Japanese, or the languages of eastern Europe, or Russian, or Arabic, or Portuguese. And what about the African languages? Where does it end?

    Even in western Europe, the value of knowing the native languages of neighboring countries is not what it once was, again, largely because of globalization and the adoption of English as a common language.

    The need for an international language has become imperative. English is that language. And we are blessed to have a head start (even if we have to learn Cajun, Texan, and Bostonian).

    Thanks for your insightful comment!

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  26. Rob says:

    To be honest, I think that most people miss the point here. There are certain unifying aspects that are necessary for the strength and sense of belonging in any country. Language is one of these. While I do have some fluency in Spanish and French, I am by no means tri-lingual – although I do support learning one or more languages EARLY in life.

    Since the formation of our country, the US has had English as its language and those immigrating here have learned to become part of the “melting pot” and assimilate as Americans. The use of English is established worldwide, and you frequently find people of diverse cultures speaking English to one another because it is a common language that they both know.

    These issues aside, it is important to remember that the US is as diverse and as vast as most of Europe. Here, we don’t have many countries bordering us, where different languages are spoken (as you do in a very tight geographic span in Europe) – although I would admit that certain Northern and Southern dialects could qualify as separate languages (I can speak Canjun and Texan if I try hard, and can pull off a wicked Boston accent). I agree that most people in the US could stand to have their horizons broadened, but as I noted above, the diversity of our country does not necessitate this as it does in other parts of the world. Just look at the size of our country.

    Learning a foreign language was a requirement when I went to high school (4 years of French) and I think it still is. Unfortunately, I had no practical means of using it until much later in my life, and by that time most of it was lost.

    I am CEO of a multi-billion dollar energy company, and travel all over the world. I find that trying to use the local language, and above all respecting local customs, gets you very far. As an educated man, I realize this – but why cannot this be applied here? In other words, my question is – why is it so hard for people in the US to accept that English is our national language and that those who come here should respect that and OUR customs – assimilating as my ancestors did – rather than creating their own microcosms of culture and language that change the very fabric of our nation?

    I am proud of what our country has become, and I do not want to see us become more European simply because a liberal Democrat thinks that we should. Diversity is what makes this country strong. Common bonds of language and a shared culture hold us together.

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  27. LATINLICIOUS says:

    I GREW UP SPEAKING ONLY ENGLISH UNTIL I WAS REUNITED WITH MY FATHER’S FAMILY. THEY ARE PUERTO RICAN AND INDIAN! MY MOM IS CHEROKEE AND SIOUX INDIAN! I WAS AROUND THEM FROM 1982 UNTIL THE YEAR I MET MY HUBBY AND HE IS MEXICAN! OUR LANGUAGE DIALECT IS DIFFERENT! WE HAVE 3 CHILDREN, NOW 21YRS , FEMALE IN THE ARMY, 19 YR OLD FEMALE AND A 17 YR OLD MALE! AS THEY WERE SMALL, I SPOKE SPANISH TO MY HUBBY AND THEN I DECIDED ON ENGLISH FOR HIM FOR THE BETTER! OUR KIDS WAS RAISED WITH APPROPRIATE ENGLISH AND DECIDED TO HAVE THEM TAKE SPANISH IN SCHOOL! THEY TURNED OUT FABULOUS! SPEAKING ANOTHER LANGUAGE ADDS RELATION TO OTHERS! I SPEAK SOME FRENCH, ITALIAN, GERMAN AND CHINESE! LIFE OFFER YOU SO MUCH TO DO, SO MUCH TO LEARN AND NOT BE CLOSED MINDED TO THE WORLD! EVERYTHING IS HERE FOR US ALL TO EAT FROM THE SILVER PLATTER! TAKE ALL THE SHRIMP YOU LIKE!

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  28. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Nancy,

    You are blessed. Fluency in several languages has so many benefits. It enlarges your sphere of influence. It broadens your scene of action. It’s a courtesy to others who do not speak your native language when you make the effort to learn theirs. So it provides a sure basis for friendship. Languages reveal other differences between people, and knowledge of other languages strengthens understanding between peoples of different languages. To know the language spoken in other countries than your own is to acquire a powerful motive to visit those countries. Experiencing another country is enriched in proportion to the degree you’re able to speak like a native. Those who speak only English when in countries where English is not the native language are reduced to the status of tourists. In fact, I think tourism as a term may have been introduced, in part, to refer to those with only superficial powers to appreciate another culture. And language limitations have much to do with that.

    Nancy, how is it that you were given the opportunity to learn so many languages so early in life? Is it possible that you lived in Spain at the time?

    Like

  29. Nancy says:

    To the first poster: it is perfectly possible to be fluent in both english and spanish, and many more to boot. Growing up in Puerto Rico, maybe your parents should’ve made sure you learnt good english as a young kid – then you’d be able to speak both. I’m not puerto rican, but I did start learning english before age 3, french before age 7, and german sometime in high school. I am now fluent in the first two plus spanish (my native tongue) and semi-fluent in german.
    Being a fluent speaker of a single language is not something to be proud of. Especially when that language is english (and I mean this in a linguistic and not nationalist sense or something like that)

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  30. Doug Geivett says:

    Shadowsnshades, I appreciate your advice to those who emigrate to the U.S. and whose primary language is Spanish (or any language other than English). Is your outlook shared by others you know who have a Latino background?

    I hope those who disagree with my post will drop in to express their disagreement and argue for an alternative point of view. I’d welcome responses in Spanish (or German, or French, or . . .).

    Sinceramente

    Like

  31. shadowsnshades says:

    I agree one hundred percent. I come from a Latin household, Puerto Rican. When I was younger my spanish was pretty good, but as I got older and entering junior high and high school. My spanish got worse. Why? Because I had parents that wanted me to speak correct english. English! Not spanish. Because they wanted me to do well in school and in life.

    My spanish is poor,but I get by when I need it. My father speaks very good english. Because he took the time to learn english as well as, read the encyclopedia on most evenings.

    What Mr. Obama should have said to that crowd of mostly Latinos. Is learn proper English and more doors to success will be open to you.

    If I were to live and work in Mexico, but didn’t bother to learn the language. Do you think they’d bend over backwards to learn English for my sake? No! They’d expect me to learn THEIR language, Spanish and I would.

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