BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's recent comment that Americans should get their children to study Spanish or another second language has drawn an avalanche of criticism from English-only advocates and cable television anti-immigration zealots.
But Obama couldn't have been more right. Whether it's Spanish, or other languages, Americans are way behind the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to mastering other languages.
Speaking in Georgia on July 8, Obama said in response to a question on bilingualism, 'We live in a global economy. And, you know, I don't understand when people are going around worrying about, `We need to have English-only.' They want to pass a law, 'We want English-only.' ''
``Now 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.''
Obama added, 'It's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe, and all we can say, `Merci beaucoup.' Right?''
Immediately, the anti-immigration camp went berserk. CNN's Lou Dobbs and other Hispanic-allergic cable television anchors claimed Obama was, in effect, calling on Americans to study Spanish -- rather than any second language. The mere thought of more Americans speaking Spanish raised their nightly dose of agitation up a notch.
But the fact is that the percentage of American college students who become proficient in a foreign language is pathetic compared to that of other countries. According to U.S. Department of Education, out of every 100 college credits taken by U.S. students in a given semester, only 8.6 are for studying a foreign language.
''In sheer numbers, more American college students than ever are studying foreign languages,'' said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, a New York-based group of more than 30,000 academics that promotes the study of foreign languages, in a phone interview from France.
``But as a percentage of total college enrollments, the number of American students who take foreign languages has decreased since the 1970s.''
By comparison, a recent survey by Eurobarometer in the 27-country European Union found that 56 percent of Europeans speak at least one language in addition to their mother tongues, up from 53 percent five years ago. In Luxembourg, one of the world's richest countries, 99 percent of the population speaks a second language, while 97 percent of Slovaks and 95 percent of Latvians are proficient in a second tongue.
About 28 percent of Europeans speak two foreign languages, up from 26 percent five years ago, the survey showed.
Feal, of the language association, is optimistic that Americans will reverse the downward trend in foreign language studies.
''9/11 has created an awareness of the need to know more about the rest of the world, and the best way to know is learning the languages of the world,'' she said. ``And parents are recognizing the cognitive advantages of learning a foreign language early in life. It makes kids literally smarter: studies show that the bilingual brain learns everything better.''
My opinion: Obama is right, although it would be nice if he were fluent in a second language, aside from preaching the need to study one.
This is not a question of whether Americans, and especially immigrants, should improve their English-language skills.
Of course they should. But, as the Europeans and, increasingly, Asians are showing, there is nothing in the human brain that prevents children from learning a foreign language without being able to excel in their mother tongue.
A second language would not only make future generations of Americans more employable, but would make the United States more competitive in the world economy, more alert about what is going on in the rest of the planet and, ultimately, more secure.