Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Foreign Languages and the Candidates

Obama says that he speaks "Indonesian and a little Spanish." The strength of his Indonesian is attested to in an article in Time:

When prominent Indonesians visit the U.S., the first person they want to meet is Obama, says Parnohadiningrat Sudjadnan, the Indonesian ambassador to the U.S. "Back home people think of him as one of us, or at least one who understands us," he says, adding that they are delighted to find that Obama speaks passable Bahasa, the language spoken in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Based on the video below, I think he's overly modest in his evaluation of his Spanish. His accent, while clearly not native, is better than that of many non-native speakers I know who consider themselves fluent. He sounds considerably better than, say, Bush when he gave his 2001 Cinco de Mayo radio address in Spanish. (Bush sounds like a kid in a 7th grade Spanish class struggling to read the textbook.)

People who've travelled abroad substantially know that speaking the local language makes a big difference. In most places, you get a lot of credit even just for trying. Obama will wow people when he goes to Mexico or to Indonesia--the most populous Muslim country in the world--and speaks for just a few minutes on television in the local language. This steels my conviction that Obama will be the world's most popular U.S. president ever.

McCain, by the way, doesn't speak any foreign language. Jim Webb, my pick for Obama's running mate, speaks Vietnamese.

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