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.
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