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Bilingualism A Political Liability?


And sticking with presidential politics for a moment, speaking a second language has recently become something of a liability for those aspiring to live in the White House. It turns out very few American presidents have had a strong command of a second language, most of them in the early days of the Republic, and that language, it was French.

John McWhorter wrote about this recently in The New Republic, and he's with me now. John, bonjour.


JOHN MCWHORTER: Bonjour, Guy. How are you doing?

RAZ: Fine, thank you. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when it was actually a virtue for a president, or somebody who aspired to be the president, to speak a foreign language, right?

MCWHORTER: Or at least to pretend. And so for example, as little known as it is now, Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou, actually spoke Chinese well enough to speak it with each other when they didn't want people to know what they were saying, and no one held it against Herbert that he spoke Chinese.

RAZ: He was the original Manchurian Candidate.



RAZ: I had no idea he spoke Chinese.

MCWHORTER: It's hard to imagine, isn't it?

RAZ: Indeed. In a recent ad put out by Newt Gingrich, an anti-Romney ad, the ad is called "The French Connection." Let's hear it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mitt Romney. He'll say anything to win. Anything. And just like John Kerry...

JOHN KERRY: Laissez les bon temps roulez.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...he speaks French too.

MITT ROMNEY: Bonjour. Je m'appelle Mitt Romney.

NARRATOR: But he's still a Massachusetts moderate.


MCWHORTER: Mon dieu.

The point is that there's this notion that if he actually has some command of another language that it's somehow possibly disloyal or it's dishonest or it's phony. And I think some of this depends on what language you're caught speaking.

RAZ: Now, Newt Gingrich apparently speaks some Spanish as well. A couple of years ago, he had to apologize for some comments he made about Spanish, calling it the language of the ghetto. Here he is speaking in Spanish.

NEWT GINGRICH: (Spanish spoken)


RAZ: He's correct.

He's actually not doing that badly.

He's not bad. No.

MCWHORTER: And I hear that he actually has been working on learning some Spanish. But then on the other hand, he has this notion that people who speak it in front of him who are not him are somehow condemned to a ghetto life or doing something that's kind of low rent, which is a bizarre way of looking at these things.

RAZ: And now Jon Huntsman, who I don't know if it was this reason that sunk his candidacy, but some - cast some suspicion on the fact that he actually speaks very good Mandarin. Here's Jon Huntsman.

JON HUNTSMAN: (Mandarin Chinese spoken)

RAZ: Now, that's pretty impressive, I mean, I got to say, listening to that. And yet, in some ways, it was a liability for him, right?

MCWHORTER: Well, the funny thing about Chinese is that you have to be careful because since it's so unfamiliar to us and so exotic, if you're too showboaty about the fact that you know it, it might put some people off as putting on the dog, somewhat. And I think that did not help Huntsman, although, of course, there were many larger issues than that.

RAZ: OK. You write about the one president in the history of the republic who actually was raised bilingual. That is Martin Van Buren. Tell me about...


RAZ: ...Mr. Van Buren.

MCWHORTER: Martin Van Buren was raised in Dutch in New York when that was not uncommon, and English was his second language. Like many people, when they get upset, they revert briefly to their original language. When Martin Van Buren was in a tizzy, he would start cursing a little bit in Dutch. So he was our one truly bilingual president, and no one held it against him.

RAZ: So when was the last time we had a president who spoke a passable second language?

MCWHORTER: I think that the answer to that question, if you don't count that right now we have a president who could hold a basic conversation in Indonesian, as quiet as he keeps this, I think that the last one really was Herbert Hoover...

RAZ: Yeah, in Chinese.

MCWHORTER: ...who could speak Chinese with his wife. That was the last president we've had who could go to another country and make his way around in the language and raise eyebrows with his rather fluent abilities.

RAZ: There you go. I guess it's truly a virtue only to speak English if you want to make it to the White House.


MCWHORTER: That's the historical lesson that we can learn from all this. That's right.

RAZ: John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic. He spoke to me from New York. John, merci.

MCWHORTER: Merci beaucoup, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.