April 19, 2004

No French please, people are watching

Fascinating stuff by Joshua Kurlantzick in the front pages of The New Yorker this week, about how John Kerry is fluent in French but has to try to conceal it. In private settings he has chatted in excellent French at length with Alain de Chalvron, Washington bureau chief for the French radio service France 2; but when asked a question in French at an open press conference, Kerry pretended not to be able to understand it, and didn't give an answer at all. The last thing you want in American politics, apparently, is to be captured on camera understanding French, let alone speaking it. Rush Limbaugh would start portraying you as hardly American at all (he already does this with Kerry, in fact, having heard about these suspicious francophone abilities on the grapevine).

Geoff Nunberg pointed out to me that in Nebraska they once passed a law making it illegal to teach foreign languages in the schools, period. Foreign language learning is now, like sodomy, legal in all states; but these are not freedoms that a politician should brag about taking advantage of. Such is the determined linguistic isolationism of the USA. I would have thought that to have a US president (for once) who could argue fluently and convincingly in the native language of some other head of state would be a fantastic asset. But instead it is perceived as a kind of disloyalty, evidence of being an untrustworthy egghead, and you would lose millions of votes over it. It's both depressing and amazing.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 19, 2004 01:00 PM