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When Does Speaking a Foreign Language Get a Candidate in Trouble?

Every four years, it seems, one of the major issues in the U.S. presidential campaign is how many languages the candidates speak, the implication being: the fewer, the better. This year, we’ve seen Newt Gingrich knock Mitt Romney for speaking French, as well as general mockery of Jon Huntsman for his displays of speaking Mandarin Chinese. In 2004, it was John Kerry who was derided by George W. Bush for being a Francophile who “looks French.” And in 2008, Barack Obama faced criticism for his upbringing in Indonesia.

It’s tempting to suppose this is an expression of a boorish—and typically American—lack of interest in other languages and cultures. More specifically, one smells an unreflective jingoism among Republicans. Does the GOP think that part of being serious Presidential timber is to speak only English? That’s probably an oversimplification. In general the issue is not whether a presidential candidate speaks more than one language—it’s which languages he speaks and how.

The knocks on Romney and Kerry for speaking French are, for example, rooted in a particular problem that Republicans have with Europe. The idea is that by speaking that language, they may have inhaled some of the socialist political philosophies, not to mention the anti-American ideology, associated with France. Gingrich, by contrast, hasn’t received any flack for learning some Spanish. (This, despite having previously dismissed the language of Cervantes as “the language of living in a ghetto.”) A further thought experiment: How would Republicans feel about Romney if he spoke a gruff, confident German? Note that this would have been less likely to have been spun as seeming vaguely disloyal or un-American; it would have seemed, to most, rather cool.

Huntsman, meanwhile, has been mocked for speaking Chinese partly because he has been somewhat showy about it, and partly because the language lends itself to that kind of “look at me!” presentation in being such a challenge to English learners. Huntsman’s Mandarin competence looks less un-American than ostentatious, geeky. Presumably a more humbly-borne competence in that language would be seen as a plus for someone vying for the Oval Office at a time when China is playing an ever larger role in the world. (And as a historic matter, knowledge of Chinese is certainly not a disqualification for the presidency: Herbert Hoover and his wife spoke some Chinese after having lived there for a year and change, often using it in the White House when they didn’t want to be understood.)

Ultimately, aside from the ways that bilingualism can be exploited over the course of a campaign, there is the practical question as to how relevant speaking another language is to running the free world. Obviously, if a President could carry on high-level discussions with heads of state in other countries, it would be of inestimable value to forging personal ties with them.

But the truth is that one can speak a language to varying extents, and the ability to carry on a brief casual conversation is quite different from being able to discuss trade policy—or even be able to describe one’s inner feelings, or say “upside down” or “Never mind.” Huntsman’s ability to converse in Mandarin is impressive, certainly: He’s gotten far past the level of John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” line in German by a long shot. (For the record: It’s a myth that Kennedy called himself a pastry.) But his Mandarin is ultimately functional at best, only somewhat better than George W. Bush’s famous attempts at Spanish. It’s just easier for Americans to glean how partial someone’s command of Spanish is, because so many of us learn some of it ourselves. Obama’s Indonesian is functional,  but similarly limited to Huntsman's Mandarin—predictable, since he hasn’t used it in almost forty years. So it’s exceedingly unlikely that any American president would be conversing with a foreign leader in a foreign language. Translators would likely always have to be used beyond the hellos and thank yous.

The simple fact is that being an American career politician or businessman is antithetical to being fluent in more than one language. Learning another language on the level that would be truly useful for a President would require spending one’s life, or even a significant part of it, living in its confines. American politicians simply don’t have that opportunity. If Barack Obama had spent twenty years in Indonesia, he likely wouldn’t have ever gotten to Chicago, and so on.

It nevertheless remains striking how little bilingualism there has been among the 44 men who have been elected President. The only one who was actually raised in two languages and spoke both throughout his life was Martin Van Buren, who was raised in Dutch, as was still common in New York State in his time. His wife was also raised in a Dutch home and always had a Dutch accent. Van Buren was even known to erupt into Dutch invective when angry. Barack Obama’s disinclination to do the same in Indonesian is probably, in the end, a good call.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.