Obama in Germany

It\'s in German!Barack Obama arrived in Berlin a bit ago, “the first stop on a whirlwind tour that will take the presumptive Democratic nominee to Germany, France and Britain in an effort to burnish his foreign credentials.”

Patrick Ruffini created a minor stir in the blogosphere by pointing out that his rally posters advertising his speech was written in German. (Not noticed: He used the local time, too!)  Publius rightly dismisses that non-issue while noting that Patrick is usually not one for getting carried away.

He does, however, see this as a good opportunity to relate an anecdote about his own embarrassing attempts to speak German and conclude,

The point of all this is that Obama probably could have communicated in English and it would have been fine. From what I gathered, every German under the age of 40 speaks English — most of them fluently. (Why is that by the way?) It would have been extremely obnoxious of course — and could have even had diplomatic repercussions. But the crowd probably could have read the material.

I’d add that the whole thing is also a sad reflection on our own inability to speak other languages, but I’m told pointing that out is un-American and amnesty-loving or something.

My German was never fluent and is in any case quite rusty.   But, yes, even twenty years ago, most younger Germans could speak English.  The explantion is pretty simple:  They started studying a foreign language in 5th grade and continued until graduating school.

Why English?  Because, if you don’t currently speak English, it’s rather a no-brainer as to which second language to choose.  It’s the language of the world’s dominant political, economic, and cultural power (the USA), the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, and dozens of former colonies.  It’s also, therefore, the second language of almost everyone who speaks a second language (a self-reinforcing loop). This means that Germans can travel to any other country in Europe — and pretty much anywhere else — and get by with a command of German and English.

By contrast, those of us who speak English as a first language have neither as much incentive to learn a second language or nearly as obvious a choice.  We can already get by just about anywhere we’re likely to go even if we’re frequent travelers abroad.  And any particular second language has relatively little utility unless we frequently go to one particular other country or live in an area with a large unassimilated immigrant community.

The main reason I learned German was that I lived there several times by virtue of having grown up in an Army family and having been in the Army myself.  Since leaving Germany in 1992, though, I have had little occasion to speak or read German.  (The occasional German diplomat or soldier who visits the Atlantic Council will certainly speak superb English and my German was never strong enough to converse at that level, anyway.)  The only time it’s been at all useful was on my trip to Amsterdam a couple years back and, even then, it was simply a matter of written Dutch being sufficiently similar to written German that I could interpret signs and whatnot; I couldn’t make out much, if any, spoken Dutch.  Not that it much mattered, of course, since everyone there speaks English.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Europe, US Politics, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Derrick says:

    You would hope that one of the GOP’s young reformers wouldn’t be silly enough to find an issue with a poster in German In Germany, but I’ve obviously set the bar to high even for young Mr. Ruffini. I’m sad that the party of Reagan has embraced xenophobia to such a large degree. First they attacked French Fries, I’m guessing next Volkswagen and Oktoberfest.

  2. Dantheman says:

    In 1995, I went to Prague on a vacation. We took a bus tour of the city in English. About a quarter of the way through, a Dutch family indicated that the matriarch (who looked to be in her 70’s), was having trouble understanding what she was saying. The guide then effortlessly started doing her spiel in German as well, which truly impressed me.

  3. Dave W says:

    I would agree that Americans are somewhat spoiled in that we can go . I do a lot of overseas traveling and rarely am I in a place where I can’t get by by speaking English.

    I would disagree with one point you made:

    “By contrast, those of us who speak English as a first language have neither as much incentive to learn a second language or nearly as obvious a choice.”

    That may have been the case ten/fifteen years ago, but I think that Spanish has now become the defacto second language for Americans since out of all the languages, is probably the one most Americans will come across in their daily lives next to English.

  4. Floyd says:

    Resisting an actual physical and cultural invasion on every reasonable front is not xenophobia. “Spanglish” would benefit the U.S.the way that Cajun French has benefited Louisiana,only on a much larger scale.
    Chicago has a huge Polish population, yet there is no DEMAND that everyone in Illinois be forced to speak Polish.
    How about a little Latin? “E PLURIBUS UNUM”
    America is the least xenophobic nation on earth, with a long history of embracing people from all over the world and inviting them to become “U.S.”

    I would say “stick your xenophobia in your ear”,
    but you’ll need that spot for your “Babelfish”,
    so may I suggest a different orifice?

  5. Hal says:

    Regardless, it’s going to be pretty powerful political theatre to see the estimated one million people show up to listen to Obama speak. I guess McCain can counter with another green screen extravaganza before a crowd of hundreds, but I don’t think it’s going to make the same impression.

    Still, it’s always entertaining to hear the comparisons to fascist leaders and dark warnings of he who would be our messiah. All we need now is a couple of scripts from the Dune movie and a McCain bunker scene where he’s clenching maps and ranting about Muad’Dib.

  6. lana says:

    When it comes to speaking English – oops, I mean, American- the discussion never ends. After my long-stays in Asia and Europe and getting to know people from all over the world, what I have seen is that Americans (..US citizens) stand-out in the world for not speaking much of anything than ‘American.’ The reason, as said before, is that so many other nations have learned to speak English as second language. The major part of the credit for this certainly belong to British ’empire’ which has been holding higher respect among third world nations. Britain has spread the English language, and has maintained its high self-esteem in the world for a longer term than US. In contrast, USA has been viewed not always with respect by the world (and I am being polite here.)
    One other thing that stood out about US citizens (Americans) is, that they did not seem to understand why it was necessary to learn a foreign language.

    Each time I have said ‘I have learned French and Russian’ and ‘I am going to learn German now’ – all those who heard it had different responses. But the un-mistaken response from Each & Every American without fail was ‘why would you want to learn that…!’ They were also the only ones who looked at me as if (or tried hard to hide that) they thought I don’t have all my cups in the cabinet…… (if you know what I mean).

    I would say, Americans ARE unique in that sometimes they don’t get it… (smirk)

    The movie ‘One day in Europe’ has people speaking in English, German, French, and Spanish. Last week I watched it with my German friend. He could understand the whole movie without reading any subtitles. After the movie, he was modest about it and I was dizzy from all that reading…

  7. Triumph says:

    This is further evidence that Hussein Obama is sympathetic to liberal fascism.

    That poster looks straight out of the textbook of the Joe Goebbels school of propaganda.

  8. Bithead says:

    That may have been the case ten/fifteen years ago, but I think that Spanish has now become the defacto second language for Americans since out of all the languages, is probably the one most Americans will come across in their daily lives next to English.

    I submit that’s only true because we’ve not of late impressed on immigrants the need to learn… and use… English.

  9. Bithead says:

    Regardless, it’s going to be pretty powerful political theatre to see the estimated one million people show up to listen to Obama speak. I guess McCain can counter with another green screen extravaganza before a crowd of hundreds, but I don’t think it’s going to make the same impression.

    Maybe, until they consider that half of the country is still annoyed that the Communists are no longer in power.

  10. DL says:

    Obama’s poster says it all. Add that to his several presidential seals and his photos with halos and that “walk on the water” messiah look and his plans to speak where the “great leaders of history” have spoken, gives rise to this question. Isn’t it time we started using the “M” word with this ultra-narcisstic man?

    Megalomania

  11. Hal says:

    Maybe, until they consider that half of the country is still annoyed that the Communists are no longer in power.

    I’m confused. What does “half the country is still annoyed that communists are no longer in power” have to do with this? And who is the “they” you are referring to who need to consider this half of the country.

    Just trying to figure out where you’re trying to go here. You seem to be referring to some context which is obvious to you but escapes me.

  12. Hal says:

    Megalomania

    Yes, because if wanting to be the leader of the most powerful country in the history of this planet isn’t clearly a sign of megalomania, I don’t know what is. And having the ability to draw crowds of a million has always shown to be a deficit in rallying a country behind your megalomaniac vision.

  13. Bithead says:

    Do you suppose it’d be hard for a hard leftist like hismelf in that environment, to gather a bunch of drooling morons to hear him spout? I mean, forget the guy is offering rockbands and beer, and food. The press didn’t mention it last time, either.

  14. Hal says:

    Okay, I think I get your point. But let’s just unpack this. The demographics of the people attending the event all point to young, pretty hard core capitalists, most of which probably weren’t even alive or were way too young to remember communism. I mean, let’s keep in mind the RNC mantra that Obama appeals to the young and elite – not really the people you seem to be claiming are the one’s Obama is appealing to. After all, the communists are all the old people, who don’t make a lot of money, have no real skills thanks to communism and aren’t exactly educated.

    So it’s kind of hard to believe your line of reason that there’s nothing but a bunch of communists attending his talk.

    Now, of course his event is providing rockbands and beer, and food. You’re saying that if the rockbands, beer and food were there but Obama wasn’t that there would still be a million people showing up? I find that hard to believe, but if that’s your attempt at undermining the event, I guess you have to go with the theories you have, not the theories you wish you had.

    The press didn’t mention it last time, either.

    It really is tiresome to hear you keep flogging the press for everything. I mean, how on earth are people supposed to hear about he rockbands, food and free beer? Doesn’t it follow from your original argument that someone would have to be telling people about this, or are you postulating another spooky action at distance where everyone somehow figures out the freebies and spontaneously shows up?

  15. Bithead says:

    So it’s kind of hard to believe your line of reason that there’s nothing but a bunch of communists attending his talk

    Perhaps, but you cannot deny that the reason they’re so freindly to Obama is they lean to the left. The Communists being but a part of that lean.

    Now, of course his event is providing rockbands and beer, and food. You’re saying that if the rockbands, beer and food were there but Obama wasn’t that there would still be a million people showing up?

    Ask Max Yasgur about that.

    It really is tiresome to hear you keep flogging the press for everything

    Then convince the press to do more than simply play agent for the fartest left candidate in the feild and do some actual reporting for a change.

    Doesn’t it follow from your original argument that someone would have to be telling people about this

    The one outlet that was saying anything about it last time is one you love to hate. Fox. Gee, I wonder why you dislike them so much?

  16. Michael says:

    That may have been the case ten/fifteen years ago, but I think that Spanish has now become the defacto second language for Americans since out of all the languages, is probably the one most Americans will come across in their daily lives next to English.

    Unless you’re interested in business or diplomacy, in which case Mandarin and Portuguese would probably be good choices too.

    Arabic also, but if I suggest that Americans start speaking Arabic, I’m pretty sure somebody will get upset.

  17. Hal says:

    The Communists being but a part of that lean.

    Again, just to be clear, you’re saying that Germany is a communist state? Further, that what we’re really seeing here is all the east Germans – former communists – who are so in love with their former control under the communist regime? I mean, we are talking about the very same people who tore down the Berlin wall, whom Reagan praised, who embraced capitalism with relish? And to take it even further, the demographic that Obama appeals to, which is pretty much the opposite of the typical east German former communist, is the main population to be found attending Obama’s speech?

    Ask Max Yasgur about that.

    So everytime someone shows up with free beer, food and rock bands it turns into Woodstock? It’s a pity that marketers don’t know about this. In any event, I suppose we can now discount all of McCain’s events which have any free food, drink and entertainment, correct? Or is there some threshold and metric that differentiates between these two candidates – other than the republican/democrat split – which we can discern when it’s the beer rather than the candidate?

    The one outlet that was saying anything about it last time is one you love to hate. Fox.

    Really? I don’t even listen to Fox, but somehow I knew all about the band and such at the last rally. How do you explain that? Was I merely picking up the information from dissemination by such publicly minded individuals such as yourself? Or was I actually informed by a variety of left wing media which prominently discussed these facts. I mean, I hate to even ask, but have you done an actual content analysis or are you just asserting without any basis in fact?

  18. Bithead says:

    Really? I don’t even listen to Fox, but somehow I knew all about the band and such at the last rally. How do you explain that?

    Right side blogs? Hillary Clinton supporters?

    So everytime someone shows up with free beer, food and rock bands it turns into Woodstock?

    Only if you have a willing media to promote it for six months prior to the event.
    (Check)
    It helps if you have a willing domestic media willing to give it day long coverage.
    (Check)
    Having a leftist/socilaist attitude, ala Woodstock, will certainly help that along, also.
    (Check)

  19. RW Rogers says:

    Having lived overseas and traveled there repeatedly after returning to the United States, I never once ran into an American who asked ‘why would you want to learn that…!’ as if to say there was no need rather than genuinely wanting to know the reason. I have met many who regretted not being able to speak the local language or not having studied any foreign language in school. At the same time, I can’t imagine anyone I know in my current semi-rural and overwhelmingly Republican backwater locale getting upset should someone they know decide to study Arabic.

    Most Americans don’t study a foreign language because almost all of them would never have the opportunity to use it if they did, save perhaps once or twice in a lifetime during a vacation, by which time they will have forgotten it. Criticizing them for not doing so anyway is easy and makes the critic feel superior, I guess.

    I was in France last month, and other than pleasantries couldn’t speak a word of French. Does that mean I’m insensitive or an ignorant rube? Some commenters here would assume yes. I wonder what language these commenters use while in Tokyo, Seoul, Canton, Kaohsiung or Beijing. I use the local dialect.

  20. lana says:

    Take my word, I know how it was asked. May be you have met only the good peoples. 🙂

    I guess there can be as many viewpoints as there are people, about any topic. I have rarely met Americans who regret not learning a second language. Rather the smug ones. For them, when a language is learned, it is done mostly because of its usefulness rather than the love of it. As for handling conversation in East, in several places you mentioned, I’d speak in their local tongue too.

    Anyways, I was getting lost in above discussion of communism and crowds: Are they talking about Obama in Berlin now, Or they referring to general gatherings Obama holds in America? There seems to be a bit too much speculation to this about communists & millions of people gathering.. Or not?

    If it is about Germany, then rather the majority of people who attend his speech come out of curiosity and for entertainment, and not half because his economic issues or American politics.

    Add to this the hundreds’ thousands people who come just because there is nothing better to do and because of the media buzz= since German media made a big whoo-ha-haa about Obama wanting to speak at Berlin’s most famous venue and Merkel cringing about it.

    The rare serious observer can know all of Obama in Berlin from internet or TV.

    The issues within their own countries are more important to Europeans I guess. Just like the Japanese people make ‘Obama toy dolls’ because it looks cuter than a Hillary Clinton ragdoll. American Election is news + drama + entertainment, all in one package, something to watch and have fun with.

    Either the number of dolls sold, or the number of people attending Berlin, do not confirm any fact about what Germans (or Japanese) think about political issues in America.

    The German soccer team attracted millions of people to Berlin in their welcome-home event, even after losing the Euro2008 finals… and that is without beer. 🙂