Should the president be able to speak foreign languages?

Over at Slate, Geoffrey Sant takes on the frequented asserted claim that presidential candidate Jon Huntsman is "fluent" in Chinese

When asked on the Colbert Report to speak Chinese, Huntsman spoke one sentence and then “translated” his words as “I just said you ought to consider being my running mate for vice president.” The studio audience roared in approval. Yet in reality, Huntsman’s mangled Chinese would translate as: “I really want you to do my vice-America president.”

In this brief and simple sentence, Huntsman managed to (incorrectly) insert the word America in the middle of the Chinese word for vice president (fu-zong-tong); made a less-than-ideal choice of verbs; and combined my and American vice president in a way that implies (in Chinese) that Huntsman possesses his own personal vice president of the United States.

On Piers Morgan Tonight, Piers Morgan asked Huntsman to speak in Mandarin, and then immediately proclaimed what he heard as “spectacularly good” despite not understanding any of it. (As Huntsman himself responded, “How do you know?”)

A fair translation of Huntsman’s Chinese response to Piers Morgan would be: “Whatever I say, you don’t, you won’t know that much, you will not be so able to understand. I am Mr. Jon Huntsman. I want to be the up-to-next American president.”

Just judging by those translations, it sounds like Huntsman could make himself understood, even if his grammar was off. He might be exaggerating his abilities a bit, but I suspect that most Americans who have ever claimed knowledge of language they haven't studied since high school on a resume can sympathize. It also begs the question of whether this is really a critical skill to begin with.

If he were elected, Huntsman's actual use of Mandarin would likely be limited to telepromptered speeches. Chinese audiences might get a kick out of this, but does anyone really think that if Huntsman spoke the language perfectly, Xi Jinping would be so impressed that he'd forgive America's debts and let the yuan float on the spot?

George W. Bush's relatively decent Spanish didn't really win him many friends in Latin America, nor did Condoleezza Rice's knowledge of Russian really seem to do much for the administration's dealings with the Kremlin. When Barack Obama became president, the French media snootily noted that "he doesn't speak any foreign languages (except Indonesian)," but I don't think that if he had put in some more time conjugating French verbs his foreign policy would be significantly more effective. 

Thinking about this did lead me to the impressively detailed Wikipedia entry on multilingual presidents. Did you know that Martin Van Buren is the only president for whom English was not a first language? (He grew up in a Dutch-speaking community in Kinderhook, New York.) Or that Herbert Hoover was fluent in Chinese, having spent time in China as a young mining engineer? Or that Jimmy Carter read the Bible in Spanish for practice? This doesn't seem to have played a great role in any of their presidencies, but interesting nonetheless. 

NG HAN GUAN/AFP/Getty Images


Decline Watch: Still holding in 10th place ... but for how long?

At an event at Washington's St. Regis Hotel today, the Legatum Institute unveilled its 2011 Prosperity Index. The keynote speaker at the event was author, broadcaster, and American decline prophet Fareed Zakaria.  Not surprisingly, Zakaria was pessimistic on the future of U.S. prosperity, though generally optimistic on economic growth in Asia and Latin America and political reform in the Middle East. Without major political reform and investment in both education and infrastructure, Zakaria argued, the U.S. ranking in indices like Legatum's would likely soon begin to slip.

Comparing the relative effectiveness of the TARP program, enacted quickly as an emergency measure in the wake of the initial stock market crash, with Congress's seeming inability to find longterm solutions for U.S. economic growth, Zakaria ended on a downbeat note: "We're very good at dealing with heart attacks. We're not so good at dealing with cancer. ... The problem is, cancer can also kill you."

The counterintuitive Prosperity index, was somewhat more upbeat on U.S. fortunes. The index strives to provide a"global assessment of prosperity based on both income and wellbeing," mixing together both empirical measures and survey data. The rankings are based on eight factors including economy, entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, education, health, safety and security, personal freedom, and social capital.

No. 1 is Norway followed by perennial development overachievers Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, and Sweden. The U.S. sits comfortably at no. 10, where it's been since the first version of the index in 2009. 

There are a couple of things that are likely to surprise readers, particularly the U.S.'s no. 1 ranking on health, contradicting other commonly used measures. This despite the fact that as the authors themselves note, the country is ranked 27th in life expectancy, 60th on respiratory disease, and 36th on infant mortality. The report seems to place a high value on the fact that the vast majority of Americans report being in good health with no debilitating conditions, but I'd say this might be one area where numbers like obesity rates and the number of uninsured should outweigh self-reported data.

The other big shock of the report is India, which not only comes in at an abysmal 91st out of 110, trailing countries like Mali, Guatemala, and Namibia, but has fallen 13 places in the rankings since 2011. India's economy has been growing pretty steadily over that period. I realize GDP isn't everything, but has life for Indians really gotten that much worse in the last two years?

Legatum is more bullish on China, which has jumped six places to 52nd place this year. I was interested to see the index puts the Middle Kingdom roughly neck-and-neck with Mexico, given that I wrote a piece comparing the two countries' growth earlier this year.