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Huzzah for Provincialism!

Today’s Outrage of the Day on the right side of the blogosphere regards this latest bit from Barack Obama, regarding the need for our educational system to get better at teaching other languages.

Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language.

You know, it’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe, and all we can say [is], “Merci beaucoup.” Right?

You know, no, I’m serious about this. We should understand that our young people, if you have a foreign language, that is a powerful tool to get ajob. You are so much more employable. You can be part of international business. So we should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age, because children will actually learn a foreign language easier when they’re 5, or 6, or 7 than when they’re 46, like me.

This, to me, seems pretty uncontroversial. I personally consider it a woeful deficiency in my education that I speak only the barest smattering of French and Spanish–certainly not enough to carry on a conversation–and am completely ignorant of any Chinese or Japanese. Indeed, I recall a time not too long ago when conversatives lamented the fact that multilinguism, once a foundation of what was considered a well-rounded education, had fallen to the wayside. Not anymore, apparently, as here’s a quick roundup from around the right side of the blogosphere:

  • Glenn Reynolds: “Barack Obama: Europeans are cooler than Americans.”
  • Tom Maguire: “Whoa. Reporting live from the United Kingdom, I have been assured that the typical Brit does not speak many (i.e., any) languages other than English and a smattering of American. Apparently Obama is aware that culturally, Britain is not part of Europe, and he assumes we know it as well.”
  • Gateway Pundit: “Obama is quite embarrassed that Americans are so boorish and refuse to speak French while traveling abroad. It’s so uncouth.”

My OTB Colleague Dave Schuler has some more sensible comments on this at his own blog:

I’m a language junkie. I’m fluent in several and conversant in a number of others. But for Americans that’s a hobby and an eccentricity not a necessity. Many Americans can travel 1,000 miles in any direction and not find that even their knowledge of Spanish (or any other language other than English) is not particularly useful to them, other than in communicating with workmen they may employ.

I agree with him that in one sense, it’s not necessary to speak another language in the United States. That sense being a pure, practical one. But there are other benefits to learning a language. For one, as Obama suggested, it provides a competitive advantage for business. Americans may not travel much, but lots of folks from other countries travel to America. Even if those people speak English, there can be business advantages to being able to speak with them in their own language.

Additionally, from my multilingual friends I am assured that speaking other languages is helpful for trying to understand other cultures and ways of thinking–which is a good skill for any educated person to have. A broader understanding of ideas fosters creativity and innovation.

Frankly, all this seems to be is a pathetic attempt to feed the “Barack Obama is Unamerican” narrative. A narrative that, I might add, has the result of making Americans sound like ignorant hillbillies. “He’s got a funny name!” “He likes food that tastes good instead of crap that’s fried in lard!” “He likes foreigners!” “He wants to speak other languages!” “He’s educated!” “He played basketball instead of football!” Embarrassing, really.

There are lots of policy ideas that Barack Obama has that are pretty silly–his protectionist-leaning foreign trade policies, for one thing. His commitment to cutting taxes without commiserate spending cuts. His national service plan. His push to expand government funding for faith-based charities. His support for McCain-Feingold. His support for No Child Left Behind. There’s plenty to attack Obama on the merits. Why not stick to that?

UPDATE (James Joyner): While I agree with Alex about the silliness of this as an “outrage” and even agree that bilingualism has its uses, Obama has stumbled on one of my pet peeves with this one:

You know, it’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe, and all we can say [is], “Merci beaucoup.” Right?

Europeans speak English because they live in geographically small countries and have regular occasion to speak other languages. English has become the default lingua franca because of the reach of the British Empire followed by the rise of the United States as a world power. If you live virtually anywhere in the world where English is not your first language, then your choice of a second language is rather obvious.

By contrast, Americans have no such easy choice. I learned to speak German because I spent quite a bit of time there growing up and again as a young adult because I grew up around and served in the United States Army, which meant I’d have plenty of occasion to use the language. Outside Germany, however, the ability to speak German has essentially no application and, indeed, my skills have atrophied substantially. French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Farsi and a host of other languages would be occasionally useful. But, aside from those who learn languages easily and make a hobby of it, it’s simply not worth the time and effort to do so if you’re an American who doesn’t regularly travel to a specific country.

The one exception is Spanish. But, unless you live in Texas, New Mexico, California, or Florida the only real reason to learn that language is, as Dave notes, to more easily converse with workmen. Whether it’s worth the time investment for that purpose is, I suppose, an individual judgment.

UPDATE II (James Joyner): Steve Bainbridge points out that Obama made his comments in the context of the need for those living in America to learn English, making his answer a neat sleight-of-hand.

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About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp writes about pretty much everything under the sun, including politics, art, religion, philosophy, sports, music, culture, and science.

Comments

  1. Hoodlumman says:

    Tactically it’s smart, though, Alex.

    After all, we who cling to our guns and religion probably cling to English, too. It’s a talking point that won’t change anyone’s mind.

    Good post on the subject, btw.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    There’s plenty to attack Obama on the merits. Why not stick to that?

    Because culture plays better than policy. John Kerry wasn’t defeated, ultimately, because Americans strongly preferred George W. Bush’s policies but rather because they believed Kerry an out-of-touch, effete, vaguely French fellow.

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  3. Bithead says:

    It is of far greater import that the people within our borders learn how to speak English.
    Telling, that he doesn’t mention that.

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  4. davod says:

    Maybe the Messiah needs to campaign for the French presidency to get a feel how the Euro elites feel about color.

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  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    How about the hypocrisy of Obama.

    So we should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age, because children will actually learn a foreign language easier when they’re 5, or 6, or 7 than when they’re 46, like me.

    How much Spanish does his children speak? Or is this another do as I say, not as I do from the left who take private jets to Bali to wail about global warming?

    How about his idea that we should increase the requirements on our schools when they aren’t doing so well on the fundamentals today?

    I happen to speak another language well enough for social and limited technical discussions. I admit I am not perfectly fluent. I went by myself to a restaurant while traveling and ordered in the local language. Everything seemed to go fine, but he brought the desert menu in English. When traveling I like to learn a few words of the local language (yes, no, please, thank you). Apparently for Obama this is not enough (though again on the hypocrisy meter, I will happily compare my language skills to his).

    The bottom line is that America is the economic engine of the world. As befits this, other countries push to learn English. Think of the periodic news articles of countries making English the official language.

    I agree that there is a lot to dislike about Obama and his positions. Just what is his position on NAFTA, telco immunity, abortion, the supreme court, Iraq, etc. It seems that his position depends entirely on the political season, not personal conviction. Which is going to lead to a great disappointment on one side or the other if he gets elected. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also point out his hypocrisy.

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  6. Alex Knapp says:

    Bithead,

    It is of far greater import that the people within our borders learn how to speak English.

    Telling, that he doesn’t mention that.

    Now you’re just embarrasing yourself. Did you read the linked article from which Obama’s quote originated?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. Alex Knapp says:

    How about the hypocrisy of Obama.

    The “hypocrisy” charge is a silly one. Something is either a good idea or it isn’t. I also agree with Obama, and I would not consider myself monolingual. I wish I had the time and resources to devote to learning Spanish, Japanese, and Mandarin right now. But I don’t. It would have been much better if I’d had the ability to take those languages when I was younger and had the time to devote to my education.

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  8. Jim Henley says:

    How much Spanish does his children speak?

    Oh that sentence is just too many kinds of awesome.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. Michael says:

    How about the hypocrisy of Obama.

    How much Spanish does his children speak?

    I fail to see how that’s hypocritical. Perhaps you’re using a definition other than the English one?

    [Side Note: James, the FriendFeed form is screwing up the comment form. Clicking the "bquote" button on the comment form adds the tag to the FriendFeed form.]

    -Not sure why it’s doing that but I’ve deleted it until I can have someone who knows what they’re doing install and tweak the code. – jhj

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  10. Bithead says:

    Now you’re just embarrasing yourself. Did you read the linked article from which Obama’s quote originated?

    Of course! But did you think this was his only opportunity to address the issue?

    And had anyone noticed that Obama plans to do that speech at Brandenburg,Germany in English?

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  11. Bithead says:

    Whether it’s worth the time investment for that purpose is, I suppose, an individual judgment.

    Idividual judgment, James?
    As far left as Obama is?
    I assume you jest.

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  12. Dave Schuler says:

    Alex, what’s the title of the Salon article you linked to? How do you interpret that title?

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  13. Tlaloc says:

    A few points-

    1) bilingualism is pretty definitively better than only speaking a single language. And polyglots are sexy too.

    2) At the same time Europeans tend to speak more languages because they have one continuous continent packed with lots of langauges. North America basically just has 2. Additionally English has (for various historical reasons) become a pretty universal language for business. This means there is a big benefit for non-english speakers to learn english- it opens up a huge pool of people to talk to. The benefit to english speakers to learn another language is smaller. Even learning Chinese or Hindi only helps you to communicate with those who know that language and don’t know english. (ignoring the other benefits of being multilingual, which can be substantial)

    3) It was a kind of stupid statement from Obama since there are plenty of mouth breathers here will flip out at the idea that the guv’mint is going to make their kids learn “messican.” Right idea, wrong way to phrase it, Barack.

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  14. yetanotherjohn says:

    Alex,

    He thinks this is important enough to speak about on the campaign trail, to propose spending tax dollars if he is elected but not enough to do anything about for his children. And you can’t see the hypocrisy? Blinded by the obamessiah light much?

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  15. Michael says:

    At the same time Europeans tend to speak more languages because they have one continuous continent packed with lots of langauges. North America basically just has 2.

    Way to piss off all the French Canadians.

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  16. Alex Knapp says:

    yetanotherjohn -

    You are ASSUMING that his kids don’t speak Spanish. I don’t actually have any evidence one way or another. Even if his kids don’t, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to have schools teach it. It has no bearing on the MERIT OF THE IDEA. Which anyone who’s taken Logic 101 should know.

    John McCain has, for his entire life, only had government-funded health care. That does not make his opposition to universal health care “hypocritical”, nor does it have any bearing on the merits of his argument.

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  17. Michael says:

    He thinks this is important enough to speak about on the campaign trail, to propose spending tax dollars if he is elected but not enough to do anything about for his children. And you can’t see the hypocrisy?

    Yes, he wants my children to have an opportunity his children didn’t get, that hypocrite!

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  18. Polimom says:

    I’m utterly astounded that anybody is finding Obama’s foreign language statements offensive.

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  19. Michael says:

    Just to try and clear up something for YAJ, a hypocrite is someone who’s actions don’t match their words. This is not to be confused with someone who’s situation does not match his words. For example, if a bank robber says that robbing banks if bad, it’s hypocrisy. But if the robbed bank says that robbing banks is bad, that’s not hypocrisy.

    If Obama had refused to let his children learn another language, then this would be hypocrisy. The fact that his children were not taught a foreign language in school doesn’t.

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  20. Tlaloc says:

    Way to piss off all the French Canadians.

    Ah yes, Quebec- Canada’s version of the south.

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  21. Michael says:

    Of course! But did you think this was his only opportunity to address the issue?

    So what you really meant to say was:

    Telling, that he doesn’t mention that at every possible opportunity.

    a situation that nobody would find “telling”.

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  22. Bithead says:

    Michael;

    No, telling he’s not mentioned it at all before this. He’s now been running for President, longer than he’s been a senator, and yet this is the first time this has come up?

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  23. Michael says:

    No, telling he’s not mentioned it at all before this. He’s now been running for President, longer than he’s been a senator, and yet this is the first time this has come up?

    How many times has he talked about the importance of multilingualism in the past? Or do you expect him to mention the importance of immigrants speaking English, regardless of the current topic he’s discussing?

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  24. sam says:

    It’s a mark of how weak the liberal’s rightwing’s case against him is that the play this up, this loud.

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  25. Bithead says:

    Uhhh… HOW loud, again?
    Look, this is a small thing, but it’s one of very many…

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  26. JohnG says:

    It comes down to reading the political climate. I don’t know if everyone knows this, but it seems there’s a big concern about immigration and non-assimilation of immigrants right now in the US. Going to a foreign country, throwing a “Yeah immigrants should learn English, but…” statement out there including winning lines about how you are embarrassed about Americans and their lack of language skills and how you wish they were more like Europeans… doesn’t he at least have handlers who were awake during Campaign ’04?

    You’d think by now “Going to a foreign country to talk about how Americans suck” would be Rule #1 on “things not to do when publicly speaking overseas.” Maybe Europeans love it when you trash Americans, but unfortunately for you they can’t vote in November. If you want to make an issue about language skills, better to make your criticisms in the US, where it looks like ‘helping American improve’ rather than in Europe where it looks like ‘kissing up to the Euros.’

    I really don’t want to support McCain but it seems like every time Obama opens his mouth he’s saying something stupid… which to me only reinforces the idea that, more than being an out of touch elite, the guy is too much of a political novice to be running for President.

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  27. Alex Knapp says:

    Bithead,

    Not that it’s my job to do your research for you, but back in January, Barack Obama gave a speech addressing the “immigrants must learn English” issue, which was criticized by Clinton supporters at the time:

    http://www.talkleft.com/story/2008/1/12/231431/542

    Also, Barack Obama’s own website has this in its issues section.

    http://www.barackobama.com/issues/immigration/#out-of-shadows

    By the way, I found these things using a sophsticated computer program known as “Google”.

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  28. hln says:

    If Obama’d just left off the Europeans part, all this would have been fine, as James somewhat stated. We conservatives do rankle at being compared negatively to Europeans.

    That being said, there’s a great advantage to knowing more than one language, and it’s well, well beyond “conversing with workmen in Spanish” when looking at where I expect the global economy to be in 20 years. We got English/Spanish board books for our sons just to get them versed early with the idea of the need to know more than one language (and they get a few early foreign words in the vocabulary to boot).

    July’s 2004 Reason sat open on my kitchen table yesterday, and my during lunch I thumbed to an article about globalization and the myths of the global economy’s drain on American jobs. It posited that the America jobs have become higher level as a result of outsourcing some of the more menial tasks (as well as those that are classified as menial tech – like pure code monkeying) have made greater, more challenging jobs for those of us who are stateside in the same fields. If the trend continues (more global trade, more shifts in the types of jobs we’re doing), there’s more international business. More international business means more need for both understanding of other cultures and the ability to at converse and/or read another language. And with a weaker dollar and a glut of free trade agreements with many countries (The US has NAFTA, CAFTA (Central American), Chile, Australia, and Peru’s in the works…and that’s just off the top of my head), exports are more attractive.

    I’m at an awful loss in part of what I do professionally in speaking only one language and being able to glean root words and meanings in a few others.

    Heather

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  29. [...] James Joyner seems to be alone among those on the right who see this for what it is: Frankly, all this seems to be is a pathetic attempt to feed the “Barack Obama is Unamerican” narrative. A narrative that, I might add, has the result of making Americans sound like ignorant hillbillies. “He’s got a funny name!” “He likes food that tastes good instead of crap that’s fried in lard!” “He likes foreigners!” “He wants to speak other languages!” “He’s educated!” “He played basketball instead of football!” Embarrassing, really. [...]

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  30. Floyd says:

    Obama ist geisteskrankes treasonous und ungeeignet, in der wichtigen Stellung zu dienen.

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  31. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    This is a true story:

    When I was in high school, I was told I needed to study a foreign language and had a choice of the standard three at the time: Spanish, French, and German. I was a few hundred miles from the Mexican border and thought I might one day go to Tijuana, so I spent two years studying Spanish.

    By the time I was in college, I was in Beirut, Lebanon where everyone spoke French so I spent two years studying French (with great difficulty I might add).

    After graduation, I ended up in Dubai, working for a German company where all the execs sneered at me because I couldn’t speak their language (even though the company conducted its business in English as most other companies did at the time).

    Having continually made the wrong choice of foreign language to study, I gave up trying. But I was able to travel the world, speaking English everywhere I went, with no trouble so I don’t feel inadequate in any way.

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  32. RW Rogers says:

    The Obamas send their daughters to an extremely expensive private school, the University of Chicago Lab School. French, German and Spanish appear to be options available from 3rd grade on.

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  33. Bithead says:

    Not that it’s my job to do your research for you, but back in January, Barack Obama gave a speech addressing the “immigrants must learn English” issue, which was criticized by Clinton supporters at the time:

    Fine, Alex. I found one or two myself. But notice, please, the sparse, almost non-existent coverage such events got from the news media, even those showing all the signs of being in the pocket for Obama. Or, come to think on it, CNN< either, which was as usual the CLinton news Network. I mean, nothing at all was made of it. Why? Well, for one thing, it’d tick off Democrats, no? No problem, though, spreading this one around.

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  34. [...] has had it with the ridiculousness of it, and in the process, succinctly defines the problem in stark, no-bullshit terms: Frankly, all this seems to be is a pathetic attempt to feed the “Barack Obama is Unamerican” [...]

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  35. ZapPow says:

    JohnG,

    What is the foreign country where Obama went “to talk about how Americans suck” ?

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  36. Billy Bob Tweed says:

    Dave Schuler says, “Many Americans can travel 1,000 miles in any direction and not find that even their knowledge of Spanish (or any other language other than English)…”

    A brief cursory glance shows me that all of the north-east, from Maine down to Georgia — plus the mid-west, covering Michigan, Illinois and the Ohio Valley — is within a thousand miles of Quebec. Unless I’m mistaken, most of those Quebeckers speak French.

    Similarly, the entire states of California and Texas — and most of the south-west — is within a thousand miles of Mexico. Unless I’m mistaken, most of those Mexicans speak Spanish.

    We don’t have to like those Frenchies and Mexicans, but we needn’t keep pretending these people don’t exist. The reality is most Americans live within a thousand miles from distinctly foreign cultures and languages. They’re our neighbors.

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  37. Tristan says:

    His statement is idiocy on so many levels. First, he completely mischaracterizes the debate – “English only” is primarily about how to educate and assimilate immigrants, especially families with children in public school. Next, his statement that Americans don’t know French and somehow “embarrass” him when they go to Europe is completely false. I and millions of other people do know French, and we’re sorry he never took the time to learn something he now thinks is important. Third, I learned French in school – like most Americans i was required to take a second language in both HS and college, so if you graduate you probably know some French or Spanish. Fourth, telling 300m Americans to learn Spanish so they can talk to 10m new immigrants is ridiculous. If they want to come to work in live in the US, they should learn some English, just like if I went to China to live and work, I better get some Mandarin and Cantonese under my belt.

    Democrats: This is your nominee. Starting to wonder if Dean-Axelrod-Pelosi-Reid-Brazille have taken you down the wrong path?

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  38. Bithead says:

    Billy Bob:

    Well, I live perhaps 200 miles out of Quebec, and have been there many times, so I find it amusing you tie onto that particular argument.

    I don’t recall many of the French Canadians coming here and being angry about speaking English…. though they do make lots of angry nosies about how everyone else needs to be speaking (their version of) French while in Quebec.

    I would suggest a visit to Montreal as an educational trip. Try sticking to English while on said trip. Get back to us with how you fare.

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  39. [...] right-wingers flew into a rage at Obama’s un-American call for better language skills. For example, John McCormack at the Weakly [...]

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  40. Halo says:

    The responses here lean so far into the stratosphere of ethnocentric I can’t believe there’s evidence of intellect mired inside some of you’re skulls. Listen, I think Senator Obama( to be fair) meant his comments as of a linguistic antebellum, where as everyday adults, not just their children and grandchildren, can step away from selfish language means and broader their scope of other cultures. To understand another culture is to communicate with them. I speak English and Spanish( part due to education, and part due to my girlfriend who’s a high school foreign language teacher–no she’s hot hispanic!).

    To decry Senator Obama’s statement as heresy against the informal “right way” of communicating, is sheer arrogance. He wishes for Americans to just be more accepting of learning a foreign language, in which to enrich ourselves, our understanding, and economic possibilities.

    We can’t sling s&%$ and piss forever..

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  41. Mammal says:

    At my citizenship ceremony, when I became a citizen of the US, they played a welcome video from the President, George W. Bush, who expressed the sentiment that America welcomes, values and hopes to learn from my bringing my culture into the mix that is America. Not just my culture, but those of the other hundreds of people from 81 other countries represented that day in the hall where we became Americans. I’m not sure why the video was played only to us… Bush should distribute it widely. It’s clear that many Americans (at least many who post here) are decidedly NOT interested in anything foreign, in multiculturalism, in understanding or learning from or about other cultures. At least our President cares, whatever his other faults may be. Language is one road to understanding. The “my way or the highway” approach is so old, so passe.

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