Q: What do you call a person who speaks three or more languages?
A: A polyglot.
Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
Q: What do you call a person who speaks one language?
A: An American.
Q: What do you call an American monoglot who can barely speak that one language and is inexplicably proud of that?
A: Donald Trump.
Many important issues have been discussed in the first two Republican debates, but some very silly ones have been as well. Among the silliest was Donald Trump’s admonition that Jeb Bush (and, by extension, Marco Rubio) “should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.” Of course Trump could not have meant this literally, as both Bush and Rubio do speak English in the United States – a tad more fluently than Trump himself, I might add – every day. Presumably the example Trump wants his opponents to set is one of speaking English exclusively, rather than by communicating with recent immigrants in their native tongues while encouraging them to learn English at the same time. This is wrongheaded.
First, speaking a foreign language is good for your brain. By learning to think in more than one mode, you begin to think about language more abstractly and analytically, and will likely soon find the quality of your English improving as well. There’s evidence it may help to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, as well, particularly if learned early in life.
Second, speaking a foreign language is good business. It closes no doors, but opens some you might not even have known where there. For the first 12 years of law practice, speaking three foreign languages didn’t help me at all. Come year 13, it practically saved my life. One financial bubble, one burst, three now-nonexistent Fortune 500 Companies and a few personal crises later, these languages are the only reason I now make anywhere close to what I made before. My employer is not unique in this regard; many others prefer bilingual or multilingual employees purely because it makes good business sense. Among these employers: Trump Enterprises.
Third, speaking a foreign country language gives us credibility abroad that we cannot enjoy when everyone else speaks our own language better than we do, and we bring nothing to the table in return. Yes, international diplomacy can be done entirely in English, and in fact often is. But relying on everyone to come to us, linguistically at least, puts us in the role of follower when we should be the ones leading. I am not aware of politicians in any other country having ridiculed their opponents for speaking a foreign language. More typically, they ridicule them for not speaking a foreign language, typically English in particular.
Fourth, speaking a foreign language is good for conservatism. Whatever the -ism, getting the message across is what matters, not the language. Possibly Rubio’s strongest point in the debate was when he noted that he learned both his patriotism and his conservatism from his grandfather in Spanish, “because that was the language he was most comfortable in.” He then added that he that wants today’s immigrants to get his own message directly from him, “not from a translator at Univision.” Similarly, Arnold Schwarzenegger chose his party affiliation in 1968, before he spoke a word of English, because his friend translated enough of Nixon and Humphrey’s respective views (albeit wrongly remembered as a debate) for him to recognize one party as supporting free enterprise and the other as reminiscent of the European quasi-socialism he’d left behind. Most immigrants don’t have that friend to translate for them, and don’t become politically aware until many years later. When they do, they’re more likely to go with the party seen as friendly to them. Right now that advantage belongs to the Democrats. The G.O.P. has a lot of catching up to do. Encouraging more of its candidates to learn at least one foreign language, if not more, would be an excellent start.
In sum, not everyone needs to learn a foreign language, but all should be encouraged to. Of course we should set an example for immigrants to encourage them to learn our language. The best example we can set is to learn theirs ourselves.