A lesson in using the right language

The Baltimore Sun

Ah, a columnist's dilemma: Which of two stories about Sen. Barack Obama should I do for this week?

Do I go with the one about Jesse Jackson, Obama and what Jackson said about Obama's genitalia? Oh, it's tempting. Jackson making a fool of himself is always fodder for any columnist, and the good reverend hit the mother lode of foolery this week.

Jackson was miffed at what he said was Obama's "talking down" to black people. Then the reverend - what church would have this guy as a pastor continually baffles me - uttered into what he thought was a closed microphone that he'd like to cut off two of Obama's body parts.

The reaction has been harsh, especially from black Americans, many of whom are now all juiced and in a tizzy about the possibility of America electing its first black president.

But when Obama first announced he was running for president, weren't there some blacks who questioned his black bona fides?

Elmer Smith, my colleague and buddy at the Philadelphia Tribune, frequently notes that black Americans are the nation's only ethnic or racial group with a credentials committee. Jackson obviously felt he was part of that committee, with the sworn and solemn duty of neutering any black American found lacking adequate credentials.

But enough of that Obama story. I'll go with the other one: The good senator is taking heat for his suggestion that Americans need to learn Spanish or another language so that America can become a multilingual country.

Frankly, I don't know what to make of Obama's critics on this one. America already is a bilingual English- and Spanish-speaking country, and has been for decades. Doubt it?

How long has Puerto Rico been a commonwealth of the United States? People born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, with all the rights of U.S. citizens. And the last time I checked, Puerto Rico was Spanish-speaking.

Here's another reason I can't criticize Obama's comments about Americans needing to learn foreign languages: For at least the past 10 years, I've said continually that all American students should graduate high school fluent in at least two foreign languages - I suggested French and Spanish - and possibly even a third. Of course, whenever I say this, people look at me as though I've lost my mind, probably because they realize that many American schools struggle to teach our kids to read and write standard English.

Obama made his remarks as a way of criticizing those who want to make English America's official language, but having English as an official language while pushing our students to learn foreign languages aren't necessarily mutually exclusive ideas. I've suggested that we make English the official language while still requiring students to graduate high school fluent in French and Spanish. But then I start getting those funny looks again.

What prompted my zeal that Americans learn French and Spanish was an incident that occurred when I went to San Diego and took a trolley down to the border and crossed over into Tijuana, Mexico. My sense of direction being what it is, I couldn't find the entrance to take the trolley car back to the United States. (I tell people I got lost in my room as a child. That's an exaggeration. What's not an exaggeration is that, as a squad leader during basic training in the Air Force, I marched my squad from the mess hall to the wrong barracks.)

There was a guard on the Mexican side of the border who was, appropriately enough, Mexican. I decided to take a chance to see if he could help me.

"Habla ingles?" I asked him. When he shook his head, I knew I had a problem - one that I solved when I bungled my way to the correct trolley car entrance to get back to the American side of the border.

And it wasn't that I hadn't taken some Spanish. I had. I just couldn't dredge up the little I'd learned to ask the proper - and, as it turned out, excruciatingly easy - question "Donde est? la entrada por los Estados Unidos?"

It was Walter Carr, my buddy from Harlem Park Junior High School, who told me what I should have said when I visited his home in San Diego later that evening. Carr had been a police officer in San Diego for years. At Harlem Park, we'd taken French, not Spanish. But Carr soon realized he needed to know some Spanish if he was going to be an effective police officer in San Diego.

There are some who say Americans should indeed learn another language, but Spanish isn't necessarily the one. An Asian-American who frequently e-mails his reactions to my columns made a very persuasive argument that the second language Americans need to know is Mandarin, not Spanish.

Whether it's Mandarin, Spanish or French, Obama has a point: Americans need to get on with the business of learning to speak a language other than English.



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