Obama's Right: More Americans Should Learn a Second Language

An avalanche of criticism from English-only advocates has tumbled down around US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's recent comment that Americans should get their children to study Spanish or another second language. Obama is absolutely right. We live in a global economy and whether it's Spanish, French, Russian or Chinese, Americans lag behind the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to mastering a second -- or even a third -- language.

Although Obama's comments also included unwavering agreement for the need for immigrants to speak English, English-Only Luddites have oozed out of the woodwork. The anti-immigration camp went berserk and the cable media maniacs spun the story to the illogical conclusion that Obama wanted Americans to speak Spanish. How absurd. Here's what Obama actually said in response to a question on bilingualism: "I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this: Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English -- they'll learn English -- you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language."

Whether it's Chinese, a language critical to future global commerce, or Spanish, the most widely spoken language in the U.S. after English, as a nation we need to get going. Spanish is the obvious choice. It is the most studied language in the United States. Businesses and companies of all sizes have begun to court the Latino market. In and around California, Texas, New York and South Florida, Spanish can be heard on the streets, in Spanish language media, and even on signs and billboards. Moreover, our neighbors beginning with Mexico and stretching down through Central and South America, are growing in economic importance. Language skills will help us work better together. We must embrace language to maintain a competitive edge.

Being multilingual is moving from "nice to have" to "need to have" as the world gets smaller and globalization continues to impact most every aspect of our lives. One of the companies I work with, Praxis Language, has changed the game of learning language by tapping the power of interactive Web 2.0 technology to make learning another language flexible, mobile and fun. For those people who are interested but don't have time to learn, there are alternatives.

SpanishPod is an award-winning online service providing daily Spanish lessons through podcast and an ever-growing archive to tap for future use. Spanish students can download their lessons to their iPods and listen on-the-go, or listen to the same lessons at the website SpanishPod, where they can take advantage of study tools to help review dialogs and vocabulary. The lessons vary by level and by topic, individual listeners can study topics and grammar points that are most relevant to their interests, such as basic greetings, travel-related language, or hot travel spots in the Spanish-speaking world, including Pamplona, home of the famous running of the bulls.

Praxis has set the standard for next-generation mobile and fully personalized learning that turns on its head the old 19th-century one-to-many teacher-centric language model. Today tech-savvy language learners (students, travelers, business-people, anyone wanting to learn a new language) can tap in 24/7 to a virtual "community of practice" that spans continents.

Even though Obama isn't proficient in a second language (and on that score, neither am I), it doesn't mean he can't spot what's right for Americans today -- and tomorrow. And although all Americans may not need to speak Spanish, learning some foreign language will broaden horizons for all U.S. citizens and mastering the language of at least one fast-growth economy like China, Latin America, and Brazil will become increasingly important for business professionals. We're going to need every bit of help we can get, from schools to online tools. Let's get on it.