July 14th, 2008
11:46 AM ET

Obama got it wrong on languages

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/07/14/art.obama.lulac.jpg caption="Sen. Barack Obama addresses the national convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) at the Washington Hilton July 8."]
Leslie Sanchez
GOP Strategist and AC360° Contributor

Speaking last week in Powder Springs, Ga., Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said, “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English, because they will learn English, you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.”

Now we know what he means when he talks about the need for “change.” What he means is that it's the country that needs to change, not Washington, D.C.

The remark was itself part of a larger outreach effort by Obama to appeal for the support of Hispanic voters in the upcoming election. As part of his effort to address the conflict over illegal immigration, the brunt of which has been felt by Hispanics, he phrased his statement in such a way as to suggest he was simply calling on parents to be certain their school-age children learned a second language. But, as someone who was born in the United States and who speaks both English and – to a lesser degree – Spanish, I am disturbed by the comments.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, the nation's second-largest school district, 92 languages officially are spoken at students' homes. Why go in front of LULAC and single out Spanish unless you are pandering to special interests? Or worse, as some in the blogosphere suggest, perhaps Obama is implying that Hispanics, both immigrant and nonimmigrant, cannot learn English so the rest of us should learn Spanish in order to communicate.

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Filed under: Barack Obama • Leslie Sanchez • Raw Politics
soundoff (59 Responses)
  1. Kay

    I listened to Obama's speech live and as usual, his comments were blown way out of proportion. It's unfortunate that the media insists on talking just to hear themselves talk, instead of reporting the truth. You people are pitiful. Thank goodness for the internet and You Tube!

    July 14, 2008 at 11:16 pm |
  2. Beta, OH

    No Ms. Sanchez, I disagree. The point is not that Hispanics cannot learn English. The point is that the Hispanic community is very present in this country whether they vote or not, legal or illegal.
    The intentions of the presidential candidate could be any of the possibilities noted in your article. Except that people need to learn Spanish to be able to communicate with Hispanics.

    Kim in NY says "we believe the world ends at our borders". Nailed it.
    It is important to learn a second language, to understand what is said in your community, on vacation overseas, watching a foreign movie and finding out the translation was not quite what the actor said, reading a good book, help somebody in an emergency... the possibilities are endless. Simply put, knowing languages opens doors, be it in the market place, being in your mind.
    I am a 35 year-old Brazilian, translator, interpreter and voiceover. Knowing Portuguese, Spanish and English has helped me establish my translating company. And as long as I can remember, has enlightened me and helped me see the world and the different cultures with much more understanding and appreciation.

    July 14, 2008 at 11:14 pm |
  3. George

    I am appalled at the stupidity of some of some of the so called
    Americans , Who claims that racism in this country has improved. It is more so alive now than before. you have some that will do everything in their power to hinder that progress . The blame also can be accredited to some of your most powerful radio talk show host. It is clear where they stand especially on some of the most horrid issue they will keep it alive
    and hammer away at it till you are totally sick of hearing it. Wake up America smell the coffee. We have a long long way to go to be called a united people.

    July 14, 2008 at 10:26 pm |
  4. Bobby

    Look I may be old fashioned about this but this is America,and English is the most widly spoken language here and by the way most of the world as a whole,so as far as I can tell the most logical thng to do is to require all others to lean to speak English,not for reasons of bias but as a national standard of comunication period.
    It's just that simple!

    July 14, 2008 at 10:25 pm |
  5. Patti

    Barack Obama missed the boat. When so many of his own people speak poor English which inhibits their abitlity to succeed in the business world. There is no incentive for Hispanics to learn English when everything has dual labels, unlike what was available to immigrants of days gone by, who had to learn English to assimilate and succeed. English is now the international language used in business around the world. Learning any language as a second is commendable, but to suggest that all should learn Spanish to accomodate a population that refuses to assimilate is ludicrous.
    He needs to be concerned about the number of children in his own race that can barely speak or write in English before trying to learn Spanish. His own command of the English language is commendable since he is so good at RHETORIC! His "change" is elusive and nondescript.

    July 14, 2008 at 10:25 pm |
  6. Jack

    What is so wrong about our children learning a second language. Spanish speaking households have no choice but to learn spanish. We live in America, and to get anything accomplished or to have any semblance of a normal life you must learn english. Learning spanish only allows our country communicate better.

    July 14, 2008 at 10:16 pm |
  7. Kim in NY

    Why are people under the assumption that you can't be competitive in the job market without Spanish. If I want my son to work in a factory or cleaning dishes in a restaurant, I'll teach him Spanish. There are many fashion and art careers that require French. There are technical and engineering jobs that require German. There are billions of dollars being spent in Middle Eastern Countries on construction. Last I heard Spanish was not spoken in these countries. One of the problems with the whole second language issue is that we believe the world ends at our borders. Don't be short sighted. We should speak English here – school, social services, DMV.... and speak a second language, any second language and get out in the world.

    July 14, 2008 at 9:14 pm |
  8. lampe

    Since when did the person from either party, start telling us what we should be teaching or children. To begin with why was Obama not talking to Black people about the way they speak. Obama wants us to eat less fat, speak spanish or what ever, seems to me he is trying to take all of our rights away from us. You have to watch what you e-mail, what you say on the phone, what else can he take away from us. Do we live in China, maybe Russia, Maybe Iraq or Iran. We had better stand up for our rights , If we don't I don't think Obama willher.

    July 14, 2008 at 8:55 pm |
  9. Sue/PA

    Sanchez……GOP Strategist

    As long as I can remember, and I am of the "older" crowd, our high school required us to take a language..spanish or german. ( rural Pa town) I encourage my grandchildren to take at least 2 yrs ( 1 yr is required) of the language of their choice. There is absolutely nothing wrong with learning another language. Immigrants should be required to learn English...when in Rome , do as the Romans do.

    Now a message to you...you said Obama mis-spoke? I would like you to report on McCains mis-speaks..they are never ending and maybe, just maybe, you would be so busy reporting, on paper, you wouldnt have time to be on CNN campaigning for him. You remind me of Hillarys Lanny Davis..ugggggggggg.

    Sue Polinick
    Emporium, PA

    July 14, 2008 at 8:27 pm |
  10. Annie Kate

    English is the official language of this country; if Hispanics come here for jobs they need to learn the language – not us learning theirs. After all, when we go as tourists or on student exchange trips overseas we are expected to learn the language of the country (or enough to get along) we are going to. I think the onus of learning a second language – English – is on the Hispanics coming here.

    However, I do agree that our children need to learn a second language, whether it be Arabic, French, Russian, German, Portuguese, or some other language. In today's global market there is room for all of them – including Spanish. We don't need to dictate one language or learn a specific language because we have a problem with our borders.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    July 14, 2008 at 8:15 pm |
  11. Kayla

    It seems a number of people here are missing the point.

    Like someone mentioned earlier, most college age people in other countries are multi lingual. I only have a basic command of german (some of which I had picked up from my grandmother who while fluent in english occasionally used german around the house, I didn't live with her long enough to get far) and french (from high school). I almost feel ashamed talking to people my age from around the world who can speak to me fluently in English when I can't speak to them in their native tongue. I wish that when I was growing up in school other languages had been introduced. It is an advantage not only in the business world but also I believe it would help fight the "ignorant American" view that some people in the world have.

    July 14, 2008 at 8:12 pm |
  12. carmen

    How did 'Senator" Obama make it to the Senate, let alone become our Democratic candidate? Read some of his college papers and his books is a must to be informed just who this person really is and who his families of origin truly are. We have an unknown just steps from our White House due to his "ability to speak". There was another such able speaker in Germany in the forties. LET US NOT BE A PART OF HELPING HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF. I am still pulling for Hillary!!!

    July 14, 2008 at 7:48 pm |
  13. Jan from Wood Dale IL

    And which Spanish dialect does Senator Obama suggest we teach our children? Mexican Spanish is different than Cuban Spanish which is different than Latin American Spanish. If Spanish is so universally accepted, then why does the International Olympics only consider English and French as their "official" languages?

    I think Senator Obama should stop with the pandering, and stress the importance of improving our schools so that ALL children learn how to read, write, and spell in English.

    July 14, 2008 at 6:48 pm |
  14. Jim-

    Your disturbed? I'm FURIOUS! We don't teach children English NOW!If you gave students today a ENGLISH
    test of 100 years ago The MAJORITY would fail. My ForeFathers came to this Country & learned ENGLISH! They did not become German American but AMERICAN ! ENGLISH became their primary language
    & if my Great , Great GrandMother Spoke in German or worse a combination of German & Cherokee You'd best leave the house for a few hours becase She was on the war path.If you go to Russia You Learn to speak their language, same if you visit China, Mexico,Italy,GermanyEct. You want to come to MY COUNTRY then YOU LEARN TO SPEAK MY LANGUAGE Which is ENGLISH!!!!!!! Don't like it? Then Your Welcome to go Right back where you came from
    ESPECIALLY if your here ILLEGALLY.

    July 14, 2008 at 6:16 pm |
  15. Larry

    Now I see why Obama wants us to take Spanish:

    At Harvard College, Kennedy had arranged for a fellow undergraduate to take a Spanish exam for him.

    July 14, 2008 at 6:11 pm |
  16. Caycee

    Learning another language, including Spanish, allows greater and better communication between cultures. It's an intelligent thing to do. But so many Americans believe they're better than other nationalities and offer nothing but criticism of them instead of trying to understand them. I think that if more Americans were able to communicate with other "peoples" in their language, they would be surprised to learn that these other "peoples" are trying to become more like Americans because they admire the opportunity to live in a country that Lady Liberty proclaims "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp besides the golden door." These days it seems to me that Lady Libery's message should be removed because she's only a shell of what she stood for and is merely a tourist attraction now. Maybe a disclaimer should be posted alongside her statement that reads "Jus' messin' wit ya."

    July 14, 2008 at 6:08 pm |
  17. Faith Pa

    This is one of those times when the mouth engaged before the brain. This is America and our language is english . If you want to live here as a citizen learn to speak it. No one is saying that you have to give up your native tongue. The Italians, Polish, Russians and many others who came through Ellis Island did just that. They came , they learned the ways and the language and contributed to making this country great. This has always been an english speaking country. That does not mean that to learn a second language our children must learn spanish to exist in ther own country. They could choose to learn Japanese , Chinese, Russian or Arabic as a second or third one. Our country can use people who speak those languages to. Please tell me that Mr. Obama is saying these things to take our attention away from important issues he is not addressing. Like gas prices and the economy.

    July 14, 2008 at 5:51 pm |
  18. Carol-Eagle, CO

    We are only doing our children a disservice by not teaching them a second language. Spanish is the second language of this country, we might not like it, but it is the reality. To say that immigrants are not learning English is wrong. At the community college in my area the ESL classes are FILLED with spanish speakers wanting to learn English. Immigration is a whole different issue. Learning a second language is only going to benefit the individual and the country as a whole. Because guess what.....when there are two people equally qualified the one who is bilingual is going to get the job!

    July 14, 2008 at 5:45 pm |
  19. Kendall

    The fact of the matter is, it's already a requirement to learn spanish in schools ,however many students can only say the bad words, Why is that it's okay to ridicule someone who is speaking bad english as a second language but trying to learn the correct way, Now it's bad to be speaking another language, It's always been a requirement to learn another language.

    July 14, 2008 at 5:24 pm |
  20. jefferson

    The United States is our English speaking country with American traditions. If you want to come into our country, then learn to speak in English and abide by our traditions. We didn't beg you to come here, you made a choice to come here.

    July 14, 2008 at 5:07 pm |
  21. Larry

    Since Hispanics now make up the largest minority then it is obvious pandering on Obama's part.

    July 14, 2008 at 4:49 pm |
  22. sj

    OBAMA – “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English, because they will learn English, you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.”

    ARTICLE QUOTE – Why go in front of LULAC and single out Spanish unless you are pandering to special interests? Or worse, as some in the blogosphere suggest, perhaps Obama is implying that Hispanics, both immigrant and nonimmigrant, cannot learn English so the rest of us should learn Spanish in order to communicate.

    ANSWER – You're own article negates this assumption.... Obama clearly states, "[immigrants] will learn English." Please stop assuming and speculating. It doesn't look good on you.

    July 14, 2008 at 4:31 pm |
  23. michael tennant

    The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the printing on american money, and so much more are in ENGLISH... If the spanish speaking community would make the effort that all other ethnic gorups make and learn ENGLISH, why would someone born here have to be told to learn spanish?

    July 14, 2008 at 4:27 pm |
  24. alfredo

    Nothing wrong with learning languages, except you are missing the point; in AMERICA English is the spoken language ; therefore when we come to the United States of America we must do our best to speak English. Something liked walking together in unison.

    July 14, 2008 at 4:27 pm |
  25. Larry

    Does Barack speak any other language?

    July 14, 2008 at 4:25 pm |
  26. Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,TX

    Hey what is wrong with learning another language? We all need to improve ourselves. Not only is it neighborly, it is good exercise for the brain. Good idea Obama!

    July 14, 2008 at 4:01 pm |
  27. Victor in Saanich, B.C. Canada

    The underlying point should be made that when a country of Spanish speaking people is on your doorstep, then at the very least the students of the border states should learn to be somewhat functional in that language!!
    The same can be said for the states that border the province of Quebec where French is the language most used!!
    The advancement of education should never be inhibited based on underlying racial bigotry!!

    July 14, 2008 at 4:00 pm |
  28. Annie Lee

    He's saying that because he wants the Latino vote. Wake up people. Respect yourself and respect your own country.

    Go McCain!!!

    July 14, 2008 at 3:46 pm |
  29. Teresa, OH

    I'm sure this is one more thing that Mr. Obama said that we are "confused" about and he will " make absolultely clear".
    Mr. Obama needs to stop telling us what to worry about and what not to worry about. We can figure out what troubles us.

    Aren't you Obama-fans getting tired yet of his having to go back and fix what he said the day after? Next day apologies are becoming par for the course for him.

    Are hispanic folks paychecks written in spanish or are they mostly paid in dollars?

    July 14, 2008 at 3:34 pm |
  30. Kevin Leo (Jonesboro, GA)

    This is one of those times where we need to read into the spirit of the message and not the exact words. When I heard Sen Obama calling for parents to make certain that their children can speak Spanish as a second language, I did not see this as pandering or refering to Spanish solely. I took it to mean that we should encourage our children to be able to speak a second lanuage as so many other children and nations do throughout the world. American arrogance has led us to believe that we can get by on English alone while others are learning 3 to 6 languages in addition to excelling in math and science.

    July 14, 2008 at 3:27 pm |
  31. Nicole in Alabama

    The only person that have a problem with this is Lou Dobbs. My daughter is 3yrs old and her school is introducing the kids to Spanish because they understand the importance of it. If you want your child to be able to compete in the job market 10 yrs frin you better ensure they can speak Spanish.

    July 14, 2008 at 3:21 pm |
  32. Kent Fitzsimmons,Kewanee, IL

    Sanchez......GOP Strategist

    That kinda says it all doesn't it. The author is playing politics. At 43 yrs old, I realize that companies would love to hire me if I was bilingual.......Spanish being the language they want me to speak besides English. Obama is very forward thinking. He is looking ahead. If you live in LA or Miami you understand the importance of speaking Spanish. Whether you like it or not..........the Spanish speaking population is rising and we will need to rise to their needs........Children are easier to teach a second language. Unless you GOP people would like that we look only to the Latino population for new employees......Well, do you?...................

    July 14, 2008 at 3:18 pm |
  33. Lisa

    I always thought it was a requirement to demonstrate the ability to read/write English in order to become a US citizen.

    If I move to another country, I will and should be required to speak their language. I should not expect them to speak English to accommodate me. However, I do agree that it is important that we learn other languages, especially in the field of international commerce.

    However, I find myself rather miffed when I go to the voting booths (or even the DMV) and the ballots are printed in 10 different languages. This is still the United States, and while we did "acquire" much of it from other countries (France, Mexico), English is the still the "native" language. Move here, learn it - don't expect me to learn (insert language of your choice here) yours (unless I move to your country).

    (But I do highly encourage immigrant parents to continue with their "native" language in the home - bi and tri-lingual is a very marketable skill.)

    July 14, 2008 at 3:14 pm |
  34. GAIL Centre,Al;

    Learn to speak Spanish, give me a break, Thats just a preview of changes to come from Obama. Sometimes change can be bad, and he's full of change. Vote for Obama and a little change is all you'll have left in your pocket.

    July 14, 2008 at 3:11 pm |
  35. Paris

    Not only he got it wrong on the language he also got many other issues wrong
    on his interview with Zakaria.

    I wonder why CNN is not doing any analysis of that interview.
    Obama couldn’t articulate any of his thoughts and Zakaria was able to bring that out.
    Obama had no sold plan to deal with Iran other than giving in to the mullah’s.
    Obama lacked the will and the experience to deal with real issues and as he would talk longer he was digging himself a larger hole.

    July 14, 2008 at 2:45 pm |
  36. JC- Los Angeles

    As a registered, undecided independent living in Los Angeles, I too find it disturbing to see candidates pandering to specific groups strictly for votes. Los Angeles is home to over 140 nationalities which helps make the American tapestry so brilliantly colorful. After eight years of a regime that failed to separate church and state and failed to represent the vested interests of all the people, we are in need of a leader who will represent the American people as one.

    July 14, 2008 at 2:39 pm |
  37. GAIL Centre,Al;

    We live in Amercia, why should we learn spanish. English is the countrys language.Immigrants over here don't speak English they should learn. If your going to live in another country you need to speak their language. Obama is trying to change everything, somrtimes change can be bad.

    July 14, 2008 at 2:35 pm |
  38. Angela Krieger, Virginia

    Obama doesn't know what he means. He just wants to win at any cost. He could care less about what languages spoken by the little people.

    July 14, 2008 at 2:29 pm |
  39. Cynthia

    He is correct in the sense of our children being able to compete for jobs – being bilingual is a good thing.

    July 14, 2008 at 1:56 pm |
  40. Kim in NY

    I believe all children in the United States should speak at least two languages. English and one other. Why must the second language be Spanish? If you choose Spanish, fine, but if you choose German, French, Italian, Arabic, that should accepted, also. Every child should be getting a second language from elementary school on. We start too late in this country, and we don't teach grammar anymore to the younger kids, so learning a second language becomes increasingly harder. Most kids that I know do not know the difference between a subject and an object or an adverb or adjective. One needs to know these things to learn a foreign language properly.

    July 14, 2008 at 1:47 pm |
  41. Kristen- Philadelphia, PA

    I don't know what qualifies you to know what Obama means. Being a GOP strategist this article is biased and you want McCain elected.

    The rest of Obama’s comments went on to say that Americans should speak more than just English but other languages (not just Spanish). We are becoming a global society and being bilingual or trilingual is a major advantage when competing for jobs. It would do us a great service to speak multiple languages.

    If you want to report on his remarks then next time tell the whole story and not just the bits and pieces you want people to know. So Obama did not get it wrong on languages, I think you got it wrong in biased reporting.

    July 14, 2008 at 1:10 pm |
  42. Greg O.

    Obama needs to learn 3 major lessons when it comes to what is important to the American people: 1] borders [enforced] 2] language [English] 3] culture [ 4th of July] not cinco de mayo. Immigrants need to assimilate to our way not us to them. No thanks Obama keep the change!!!

    July 14, 2008 at 12:50 pm |
  43. Larry

    Surprised that Obama didn't say we all have to learn Ebonics.

    Obama's dad wasn't an immigrant, he was here on a student visa, nothing to do with Affirmative Action. I didn't know Obama Sr. was still married when he married Barack Jrs mother. I don't see that Barack Sr.had anything to do with civil rights movement.

    July 14, 2008 at 12:38 pm |
  44. MJK

    Pandering is an understatement... and Obama is taking it to a new level every day. All air and no substance...

    July 14, 2008 at 12:35 pm |
  45. Javier, Los Angeles

    Perhaps Senator Obama sees the writing on the wall that you've failed to grasp, Ms. Sanchez. U.S. Hispanics will continue to grow in numbers well into this new century. Like it or not, a basic command of Spanish wouldn't be such a bad thing for all Americans to have. If nothing else, it'll certainly facilitate communicating with what will likely remain the single largest ethnic minority in our lifetime. And that will certainly help grease the wheels of a national economy that will undoubtedly grow increasingly dependent on Hispanic workers AND consumers.

    Take it from me, I'm a Republican.


    July 14, 2008 at 12:35 pm |
  46. Peter

    "General Excellence" of an almost unknown magazine, out of New York, has been damaged with last front page as much that only "The Mummy" in the next cover may recover its credibility.

    July 14, 2008 at 12:33 pm |
  47. Cindy

    Obama definitely got it wrong!! While it is great for anyone to know more than one language anyone that comes to live here needs to know English. I mean that is the major language spoken here. Knowing it will help them be able to better function in our society. That is why most people all over the world are taught English along with their native language.

    For him to say that we need to learn another language to accommodate one group is inane! As far back as our country has gone no other group has come here and wanted us to switch to their language. So why should we start that now?


    July 14, 2008 at 12:20 pm |
  48. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    The problem is that the current generation of illegal hispanic immigrants don't feel the need to learn English. Look at how many businesses and government agencies are forced to go bilingual, particularly in places like LA. Obama is doing nothing more than pandering. Expect amnesty big time if he's elected.

    July 14, 2008 at 12:14 pm |
  49. tjs

    This edit is so slanted and un-factual its shamefull to say the least. Obama was saying that to compete in a global market that our children need to have more than English. He never said that English was not the first laungage. He said it was. To learn Spanish or another laungage will again help our children compete. To twist his message and slant it as you have is again shamefull! Are you Lou Dobbs right hand? I wish you could be sued, because this is blantant slander!!!!!

    July 14, 2008 at 12:03 pm |
  50. Mary Rothschild

    The underlying fact – is that other countries put us to shame re: language education. When our kids go abroad for their "semesters" they meet people who are their age who are fully bi-and often tri-lingual, as a matter of course in their education systems.

    July 14, 2008 at 11:55 am |
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