If there’s one activity that has become something of a national pastime in the US, it’s watching President Trump for odd turns of phrase. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s deeply saddening. In either case, it raises the question of how important language is for a career in politics.
Interestingly, not since FDR has the US had a president who was fluent in other languages (in FDR’s case, those languages were German and French). So, should those hoping to go into politics ditch their language learning efforts early on? Not necessarily!
While bilingual presidents are the exception, rather than the rule – certainly in the past century – language is still important. Speaking another language allows politicians to cross-cultural divides and speak to more demographics. Using foreign languages through a translation agency can also show that they care about, and have taken the time to understand, different cultural traditions around the world, as well as those within their own country.
Language, Translation, and Political Demographics
America is a linguistically diverse nation. According to the US Census Bureau, there were 25.1 million people who classed themselves as unable to speak English very well in the US between 2009 and 2013.
16.3 million of those individuals spoke Spanish. 3.4 million spoke other Indo-European languages, such as French, Portuguese or Italian. Asian and Pacific Island languages accounted for a further 4.5 million of those people who didn’t speak English very well in the US.
The figures show that there are tens of millions of people speaking other languages in the US. Those are major voting blocs that politicians could reach. Politicians have plenty of potentials to build a rapport with those they represent by connecting with them linguistically.
It’s especially important for local politicians to use the other languages they speak to connect with other cultures in their area, whether they are bilingual (such as Rubio and Castro) or acquired a second language earlier in life (like Kerry, Romney, Kaine, Buttigieg, Jeb Bush, and others). These may make up large voting blocs that could swing an election, as well as a base of a community with important needs.
What Does Translation and Speaking in Other Languages Achieve?
From a cultural perspective, using a foreign language when you can first and foremost tell voters that you care enough about them and their culture to use their language.
Voter apathy is a large problem in the US, along with a general feeling of disenfranchisement from the entire political process. People feel the politicians in charge don’t understand them or represent their causes. Feelings of apathy towards the political system can run especially deep in minority communities, with many feeling they have no voice in the system.
Politicians who are competent speakers of other languages can use their linguistic talents as a first step to bridging that gap between the millions of people who feel too alienated to vote and a political process that needs to hear all voices in order for the country to function correctly. It could be the first step in helping some demographics feel heard and understood.
Of course, no politician is going to speak the language of every minority community in the US. The country is home to well over 300 languages, according to Census categorizations. However, even speaking two languages fluently could bring notable benefits. Over 230 million people in the US speak only English at home, while more than 37 million speak Spanish at home. As such, a bilingual English/Spanish politician can instantly reach out to millions of more voters in their native tongue.
The US is also home to more than a million speakers of each of French, German, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Tagalog, as well as over a hundred indigenous languages (with Navajo being the most widely spoken, at around 166,000 speakers). No politician will speak all of these languages, but even speaking one could make a big difference when it comes to connecting with different local communities.
Is Translation Sufficient?
Realistically, you need to be fluent in a language in order to converse naturally with those you represent. Language learning takes the kind of time that most people only have available during childhood. With so much on a politician’s plate, taking the sheer hours to learn a new language might not be realistic. As such, those who were raised to speak two languages, or who have learned a second language during childhood have a distinct advantage.
Only knowing part of a language or culture can be worse than not knowing the language at all. A poor translation can look insincere at best or insulting at worst. However, if a politician is not at the level of fluency required to converse with confidence, translating speeches or written campaign messages can help bridge the cultural divide. Doing so shows a willingness to connect with people from that demographic, even though language barriers exist. Interpreters may also be needed to work with the community directly.
To sum up, using a foreign language can fight voter apathy and help politicians understand local voter needs. It might even swing a whole election!