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Bush's Ability To Speak Second Language A Rare Presidential Ability

February 14, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush speaks a Tex-Mex kind of Spanish -- some of this language, some of that one. Polished, it's not.

Yet as he may show in Mexico this week, he's the first U.S. president reasonably proficient in another language since Herbert Hoover, who once translated a Latin manuscript on mining.

Bush's ability to converse in Spanish is an oddity. The second-language skills of U.S. presidents have declined as America's position in the world has risen.

As leaders in other nations took up English, it became less important for American presidents to speak anything else.

While Bush struggles with Spanish, much like he sometimes stumbles through English, he's doing much better than most native English-speakers in this country, Spanish-speakers say.

It's a handy skill: The Hispanic population is expected to top 34 million next year, surpassing non-Hispanic blacks to become the largest minority group.

"We are now one of the largest Spanish-speaking nations in the world," Bush told Latinos in the campaign. "Yo quiero construir puentes, no paredes." ("I want to build bridges, not walls.")

Not that he's bilingual.

"That would be a stretch," said Lisa Navarrete of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization. "Bush's Spanish is very colloquial, with Tex-Mex Spanish and everything else mixed in.

"But he seems much more comfortable in the language than any president we've ever had."

Her colleague Marco Davis agrees, saying Bush might be close to "proficient."

Davis was particularly struck by Bush's appearance on the Spanish-language TV network Univision just before the election, when he fielded questions in Spanish and answered in English.

"What I remember is his comprehension, his grasp of the language," Davis said. "The interviewer didn't particularly slow down his speech, and the questions weren't oversimplified either."

"He actually looks like he's thinking in Spanish," Navarrete said.

Bush studied Spanish in school and learned more through conversation with friends in Texas, where he was an oil man and governor. It's unclear how much Spanish he'll use on his one-day Mexican trip Friday, his first out of the country as president. Mexican President Vicente Fox, with whom Bush will meet, is comfortable in English.

Bush uses Spanish when he can, but recognizes his limitations, White House officials say.

One of his favorite phrases is, "No quiero destruir un idioma muy bonito."

Translation: "I don't want to destroy a beautiful language."

Most Hispanic-American voters are U.S.-born and proficient in English, said Gregory Rodriguez, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute. He said they do not need to be addressed in Spanish.

But using Spanish to reach American Latinos "is like going to a St. Patrick's Day parade," he said. "It's just a symbolic gesture to say 'I know who you are."

American presidents were once comfortable in second languages, third ones, and even more.

In the early 1800s, they tended to be fluent in Latin, Hebrew and Greek; some spoke German, Italian, French and Spanish, said Forrest McDonald, presidential historian at the University of Alabama.

"There was a time when it was extremely useful for American leaders to speak foreign languages," he said. "French was the language of diplomacy.

"We had to deal with other people as equals, or we were subordinates. Now that we're top banana, there's a touch of arrogance, a thought: 'Let them learn our language."'

In the late 1800s, President Garfield, a former classics professor, knew many languages. He amused friends by putting an English book in front of him and writing tablets to his left and right.

"He would simultaneously translate the English into Greek with his left hand and into Latin with his right hand," McDonald said.

Early in the 20th century, President Wilson was fluent in Latin, Greek and French, and President Hoover translated a Latin manuscript on the history and techniques of mining into English.

Hoover even spoke some Chinese, McDonald said.

John Kennedy famously tried out some German in 1963.

Hundreds of thousands of Germans cheered when he stood on the Western side of the Berlin Wall and declared, according to a literal translation of his German: "I am a jelly doughnut."

The German crowd did not laugh, knowing Kennedy's words, "Ich bin ein Berliner," were intended to declare, "I am a Berliner" -- standing as one with them.

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