Chapter 8: Foreign languages, patriotism, and American values

“To know your enemy, you must become your enemy…Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” 

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

To celebrate Foreign Language Week in 2005, Maryland’s Old Mill High School broadcast the Pledge of Allegiance in a variety of languages, including Spanish, Latin, French, and Russian. The English-language version of the Pledge was also broadcast for the student body. One fifteen-year-old student protested the Foreign Language Week observance, and refused to stand for the pledge. When asked to explain himself, the ninth-grader said:

“This is America, and we’ve got soldiers at war. When you’re saying the Pledge in a different language which nobody understands, that’s not OK.”

The boy’s father supported his son’s protest, and compared the reading of the Pledge of Allegiance in a foreign language to “wearing a cross upside down in a church.”

Now let’s examine a far more serious story that made the news about three years before the Maryland teen staged his protest. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, it was revealed that our national security apparatus suffered from a lack of FBI agents and CIA operatives who speak Arabic, Farsi, and Pashtu. On June 7th, 2002, ABC News even reported that U.S. government officials were unable to complete a timely translation of “at least one conversation in Arabic before the Sept. 11 attacks in which the participants spoke about something big that was going to happen on that day… “  By the time the relevant materials were translated, the attacks had already occurred. (Source:, 06/07/02)

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu suggested that we should know our opponents even more intimately than we know our allies. In this light, studying other languages and cultures provides strategic advantages. However, as long as the study of language is a one-sided endeavor, the advantages of bilingualism will only function for our commercial and strategic rivals.

Like other nationalities, Americans have often felt an urge to expel the language of the enemy. During the First World War, German language schools in my native Cincinnati were shut down. Throughout the more recent Cold War, Russian Studies professors were frequently the target of McCarthyist persecutions. To learn the language of the enemy is sometimes seen as a sign of surrender. Hypothetical defeats are often alluded to in linguistic terms: “If the war had been lost, we would all be speaking German/Russian/etc.” 

The Navajo Language and World War II

In war, linguistic insularity has been the difference between victory and defeat. In recent history, the best known example is the story of the “code talkers” of World War II. The code talkers were Native Americans of the Navajo tribe whom the American government recruited to relay sensitive messages in the Pacific combat theater. The Navajo language was unknown outside the American Southwest, so there was no way that the Japanese military could decipher intercepted radio messages broadcast in Navajo. This weakness ultimately contributed to their defeat in the South Pacific.

Opponents of the United States and Western values don’t see any contradiction in learning English. A report from Saudi Arabia provides a striking example. On November 17th, 2002, CNN aired “Inside Saudi Arabia”, a documentary about the reclusive Middle Eastern kingdom that has occupied the headlines so much since the terrorist incidents of 2001. While acknowledging the negative aspects of Saudi society, the program also attempted to shed light on some reforms that are being made within the country.

Traditionally, Saudi Arabia’s school system has placed an excessive emphasis on religious studies. Students spend large amounts of time memorizing the Koran and other religious texts. Some reformers inside the country have noted that Saudi schools should teach more subjects that are relevant to technology and international commerce. One of these subjects, of course, is English.

The CNN camera crew entered an elite Saudi school that had placed a special emphasis on English. The scene was a modern, immaculately clean classroom, where the sons (no daughters) of Saudi Arabia’s millionaires received top-notch English language instruction. The private educational institution had even hired a teacher from the United States, so that authentic, accent-free English would be taught.

Several of the young men in the classroom were interviewed by the CNN reporter. (Ironically, one of these youths was the nephew of Osama Bin Laden.) To their credit, the young men spoke English fairly well—certainly much better than the average American high school student speaks Spanish or French, let alone Arabic.

In the context of the “Global English” discussion, these Saudi youths might seem to be yet another argument for Anglophone complacency. Such a conclusion would be short-sighted. Never mind that the sons of Saudi millionaires are not representative of the entire country, or the Arab world in general. There is another, far more important reason why we should not throw away our Arabic textbooks just because some wealthy young Saudis are learning English.

Saudi Arabia is a nominal U.S. ally, but no one can doubt that there are many elements within the country that mean us harm. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the home of radical Wahhabi Islam, and the country of origin of fifteen of the nineteen September 11th hijackers. If a large number of Saudis can speak English, but practically no Americans can understand Arabic, then who has an advantage on the intelligence front? Who can gather information the most easily? Who can casually read the news and opinions available on the other side’s Internet?

Following the publication of the first edition of Why You Need a Foreign Language & How to Learn One, I was interviewed by the magazine Transitions Abroad. One of the interview questions concerned the shortage of U.S.-born Pashto, Farsi, and Arabic speakers, and the significance of this weakness in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. I responded as follows:

“There is an obvious problem when so few Americans can casually read what is written on a jihadi website, or the Arabic-language site of Al-Jazeera. We rely too heavily on foreign nationals for our translation needs in the Middle East. I’m not saying that every American should speak Arabic, but an imbalance exists when almost no Americans can speak Arabic. The Middle East is an area of long-term strategic importance to us, and the current struggle against Al Qaeda is only one part of it. We also now have a long-term commitment in Iraq. Our chances of success will be greater if American soldiers, diplomats—and eventually, businesspersons—can understand what average Iraqis are saying.”

It would be easy to dismiss American’s lack of prowess in foreign languages as simple xenophobia. An examination of the past reveals a more complex picture. The United States—unlike the tightly clustered nations of Europe—is a vast country with oceans on two of our major borders. For most of our history, we were able to exist in relative isolation.

Moreover, America began its existence as a weak country amid much stronger European powers. In the decades after the Revolutionary War, threats from abroad were a constant source of anxiety. Even George Washington was worried about foreigners meddling in the affairs of the United States. In his Farewell Address of 1796, President Washington urged Americans to avoid “passionate attachments” to other nations.

More than two hundred years before Americans ordered “Freedom Fries,” there was anxiety about the French. Alexander Hamilton once derided Thomas Jefferson for his “womanish attachment to France.” In 1814, the White House and a series of national monuments were burned to the ground—not by Islamic terrorists, but by invading British troops. And American apprehensiveness about interference from Europe persisted well into the 20th century, when public opinion was bitterly divided over U.S. participation in two European land wars.

We still worry about the “insidious wiles of foreign influence” that Washington described in 1796. The European threats of the 18th and 19th centuries have been replaced today by fears of Middle Eastern terrorists, and China’s growing military and industrial power. However, the isolationism of the past is completely untenable given the technology, geopolitics, and globalized economy of the 21st century. We must engage both friend and foe alike. In the coming years, this will mean that many more of us will need to master foreign languages.   

Language and Democracy

Some proponents of Global English have even suggested that the English language could—simply by virtue of being the English language—be a vehicle for political and social change. I have read a number of editorials that describe English as the “language of democracy.” The producers of the aforementioned CNN documentary were similarly encouraged by the English classes in Saudi Arabia. They expressed hope that Saudi Arabia would become more liberal and Westernized through the study of our language.

While such hopes are appealing, there is no demonstrable link between English study and Western democratic values. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—two wealthy oil states—boast especially high numbers of competent English speakers, due to a large and well-educated privileged class. Neither of these countries is “liberal” or “Westernized.” (In fact, both countries severely restrict the rights of women, foreigners, and non-Muslims.)

  In Pakistan, where English shares official status with Urdu, women are often murdered by male family members in “honor killings,” as atonement for minor moral infractions. Radical Islamic parties are a major force in the country’s government. Nor has English made Pakistan America’s friend; according to a December, 2002 news report, the most popular toys for young Pakistanis at the end of the year were Osama Bin Laden theme toys. (CBS, 12/05/02)

In contrast, there are comparatively few fluent English speakers in Spain, Italy and France. The French in particular are famous for their resistance to the “linguistic hegemony” of English. Yet these countries have well-developed democracies, and human rights are respected within their borders. While the language barrier is a serious factor when visiting Madrid, few would choose the repressive societies of Pakistan or Kuwait over monolingual Spain—just because there are greater numbers of Pakistanis and Kuwaitis who can chat in English. Language, as it turns out, is a communication tool—not a political philosophy.

Local Language Conflicts

The politics that surround language do not always involve global power shifts and international disputes. In fact, many of the more bitterly contested language controversies arise from conflicts within countries rather than conflicts between countries. Some of these battles are scarcely known outside the particular regions where they take place.

Consider the case of Spain’s minority languages. Everyone knows that Spanish is spoken in Spain, but not everyone is aware that people in certain regions of Spain also speak Catalan, Basque, and Galician. The most numerically significant of these—Catalan—is actively spoken by about 7 million people. (The total population of Spain is about 43 million.)

General Francisco Franco, who was dictator of Spain from 1939 to 1975, banned Spain’s minority regional languages. The minority languages were later legalized following the restoration of the constitutional monarchy and democracy in Spain. Legalization, however, did not depoliticize them. Politicians, journalists, and common citizens in the minority language areas continue to lament the state of their languages vis-à-vis the national one. Meanwhile, some Spaniards outside the minority language areas wonder aloud whether the minority language speakers have truly assimilated into the greater Spanish polity.

Similar worries have arisen perennially within the United States. In colonial times, Benjamin Franklin expressed concern that German immigrants were too slow to learn English and to assimilate into the culture of the United States. In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt warned his fellow citizens not to let America become “a polyglot boarding house for the world.” Many Americans hold the same concerns in the early 21st century. In states that have high numbers of immigrants, there have been ballot initiatives to restrict the public use of languages other than English.

U.S. English, a citizen’s action group dedicated to the passage of official English legislation, describes itself as “the nation’s oldest, largest citizens’ action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States.” The U.S. English website ( documents the group’s state-by-state efforts to have English officially declared the language of the United States.

U.S. English correctly states that English is “the language of opportunity” in the United States. However, there is no evidence to indicate that immigrants, as a group, disagree with this point. Even The National Council of La Raza (an advocacy group for Hispanics and Spanish-speaking immigrants in the U.S.) acknowledges that “English competency is a necessity for success in the United States.”

At a more grassroots level, I would cite what I call “the grandparent test” as evidence that immigrants are assimilating linguistically into the United States. The grandparent test is simple: try to find a second-generation immigrant born in the United States who speaks her parents’ language more fluently than she speaks English. Then try to find a third-generation immigrant born in America who can even manage a basic conversation in the language spoken by her grandparents.

I have met no second-generation immigrant who speaks Spanish or Swahili better than she speaks English. And the only third-generation immigrants I have met who can speak their grandparents’ language at all learned it at school—not in the home. In either case, the results of the grandparent test make clear that the melting pot still functions in the United States. There are no multigenerational enclaves of immigrants in the United States who primarily speak Chinese, Russian, Spanish—or any other language besides English.

Most of the linguistic controversies within the United States involve Spanish. Spanish is the only language with enough speakers in the United States to create the perception that it is somehow competing with English. This is not, however, a problem of assimilation. The U.S.-born descendents of Spanish-speakers pass the “grandparent test” I describe above. In study after study, the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States express a clear preference for English.

There is, however, no denying a simple fact: we currently have a large number of first-generation Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States—especially in border states like Texas, Arizona, and California. These people speak Spanish because it is the language they grew up with—outside the United States, in a Spanish-speaking country.

This issue is closely related to the topic of illegal immigration. While many of our immigrants arrive in the United States legally, many others arrive illegally. Our illegal immigration problem is often conflated into a “Spanish language problem.” But the Spanish language isn’t the problem. We need to control our borders—not pass official English laws.

When you probe beneath the surface of outcries about the presence of the Spanish language in the United States, you invariably find that the real concern is illegal immigration—not español. In April of 2005, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger publicly chided a Spanish-language television station for a billboard that it placed along a Los Angeles freeway. The words on the billboard were in Spanish, but the Governor’s complaint did not concern the mere use of Spanish. At the top of the billboard, the abbreviation for California (CA) was crossed out and replaced with the word “Mexico,” so that the sign read: “Los Angeles, CA Mexico” The effect was a strong suggestion that the city of Los Angeles is located in Mexico—rather than the U.S. State of California.

Schwarzenegger acknowledged that the billboard was probably intended as a slick marketing ploy rather than a political statement. However, he was concerned that the billboard promoted illegal immigration. The Governor urged the station to take the controversial billboard down.

California is home to 2.4 million illegal immigrants—half of whom come from Mexico. Illegal immigration costs California taxpayers about $10.5 billion annually. The chaotic situation along the U.S.-Mexico border has inordinately swelled the ranks of first generation immigrants in the United States. A secondary effect of this huge influx is an exaggerated fear that American English is threatened within our own borders. But the children of these Mexican immigrants will almost certainly become fluent native English-speakers if they grow up in the United States.

When immigration is properly controlled, the small-scale presence of a foreign language within our borders creates no negative impact on national unity, or practical communications on day-to-day matters. My own Cincinnati, Ohio provides a persuasive example. Cincinnati is home to a substantial but reasonable number of immigrants from around the world. We have Spanish-language radio stations, Chinese-language newspapers, and a smattering of local media in other languages. None of these is seen as an effort to compete with the English language; and the local immigrant who cannot hold at least a basic conversation in English is rare.

Chapter 8 Appendix:  More Non-Hispanic Americans Speaking Español

I recently upgraded my cable TV package to include several Spanish-language channels. While those of you who live in New York or L.A. have had access to Spanish-language TV and radio channels for decades, finding live broadcasts en español was very difficult here in Ohio until just a few years ago.

My favorite Spanish-language channel is CNN en Español. Although the Spanish-language version of CNN has a slight focus on Latin American news, the content is more or less the same as its English-language counterpart. Thanks to CNN en Español, I have been able to discipline myself to consume most of my news in Spanish, which of course helps me to improve my skills in the language.

The more I watch CNN en Español, the more evidence I see of a growing interest in the Spanish language among non-Hispanic Americans. The other day, I was surprised to see New York Governor George Pataki chatting volubly with a reporter in Spanish. President George W. Bush can only manage snippets of the language; but his brother Jeb (the Governor of Florida) has excellent Spanish skills. And lesser known non-Hispanic Americans appear on CNN en Español seemingly every other day. Some of them struggle a bit—but I have yet to see any of them totally blow an interview because their Spanish skills weren’t up to the task.

In fact, I have noticed that Spanish-speakers in the United States are no longer terribly surprised to meet a non-Hispanic American who is comfortable in their language. More often than not, they don’t even suggest that the American who speaks Spanish is doing something out of the ordinary. They simply reply in Spanish and continue the conversation in Spanish—their reaction no different than that of an American abroad who is addressed in English. 

The experts agree that non-Hispanic Spanish proficiency is becoming less unusual in the United States. Cristina Gómez, a professor in the Hispanic Studies department of the University of Chicago, commented on this issue in a recent article appearing in the online version of CNN en Español.

“El número de personas bilingües ha aumentado y no sólo es de origen hispano, sino de otras razas porque entienden que el español es ahora el segundo idioma en la nación”

(“The number of [Spanish-English] bilinguals has increased, and this group is not only of Hispanic origin. It also includes people of other ethnicities, because they understand that Spanish is now the second language of the country.”)

As I mention elsewhere in this book, Spanish is a solid choice for the American who knows that she wants to learn a foreign language, but remains undecided about which one. While there are scores of useful languages to choose from, you simply can’t go wrong by starting with Spanish.

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