Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Trump is wrong; U.S. should speak more languages

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to a question at a news conference at Trump Tower, in New York, Sept. 3, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to a question at a news conference at Trump Tower, in New York, Sept. 3, 2015. AP

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s criticism of fellow contender Jeb Bush for speaking in Spanish during a campaign rally in Miami last week was — to use one of Trump’s favorite words — stupid.

In fact, U.S. politicians, and Americans in general, should be speaking more Spanish. And more Chinese, and more Hindi, and more German and French as well. In a globalized world, in which isolationism leads to backwardness, Americans should increasingly be learning and speaking more foreign languages.

Trump, whose diatribes against Mexican undocumented immigrants and free trade have helped him gain national attention and become the front-runner in the Republican race, said Sept. 2 that former Florida governor Bush “should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”

Bush, a fluent Spanish-speaker whose wife was born and raised in Mexico, vowed to keep speaking Spanish whenever he feels like it, and suggested that Trump’s idea that people should speak only English in the United States could hurt this country.

“Taking this to the logical conclusion, I guess, no more French classes for public schools? ‘German, no we can’t have that. You can only speak English,’” Bush was quoted as saying by the Reuters news agency. “I mean English is the language of our country and people that come to this country need to learn English. That doesn’t mean they should stop speaking their native tongue.”

As was to be expected, the Trump-Bush spat over the use of English immediately became a hot topic in social media.

Trump supporters, echoing their candidate, said that if immigrants don’t speak English, they will never learn it. In addition, most of the world already speaks English as a second language anyway, so U.S. citizens should not lose much sleep over not speaking other languages, some argued.

Trump critics countered that English proficiency among Latinos is rising, while immigration from Mexico has declined significantly in recent years. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 68 percent of all Hispanics aged 5 and over are fluent in English, up from 59 percent in 2000.

While older Hispanic immigrants may still not be fluent in English, almost eight in 10 of young Hispanics under 18 are fluent in both languages, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.

Regarding the Trump camp’s claim that Americans should not worry too much about foreign languages because English has become the world’s No. 1 language, critics counter that English-speaking countries no longer dominate the world economy.

Indeed, the Council on Foreign Relations, a major Washington-D.C. think tank, concluded in a June 26, 2012, policy memorandum that “the global economy is shifting away from the English-speaking world. Since 1975, the English-speaking share of the global GDP has fallen significantly, and will continue to fall.”

The report adds that China’s economy is expected to surpass the U.S. economy soon - by some measures, it already has - and that Latin America and South Asia are accounting for an increasingly larger share of global trade.

“Future U.S. growth will increasingly depend on selling U.S. goods and services to foreign consumers who do not necessarily speak English,” the report adds.”It is an old adage that you can buy in any language, but you must sell in the language of your customer.”

My opinion: The United States is already at a disadvantage with other industrialized countries when it comes to proficiency in foreign languages. Surveys show that there are much fewer Americans who speak a foreign language than Germans, Swedes, Danes or most other European nations.

What’s worse, instruction of foreign languages - including Spanish - is falling in the United States. According to a new report by the Modern Languages Association of America, enrollment in foreign language courses in U.S. colleges has fallen by 6.7% since a previous survey in 2009, after more than three decades of steady increases.

Enrollment in Spanish courses fell by 8.2 percent over the same period (the first fall since 1958,) while enrollment in French classes dropped by 8.1 percent, in Arabic by 7.5 percent, and in Russian by 17.9 percent, the survey says.

Trump got it all wrong. The United States will lose competitiveness in an increasingly global economy if its population does not speak foreign languages. If Trump wants to “make America great again,” as his campaign slogan reads, he should learn Spanish, and other languages, and start speaking them as often as he can.