When speaking a second language is a problem

Most of the time it’s seen as desirable to speak more than one language. When isn’t it? When you’re hoping to become President of the United States.

An interesting article at The New Republic explores the reasons why bilingualism becomes an issue in presidential campaigns:

In 2004, it was John Kerry who was derided by George W. Bush for being a Francophile who “looks French.” And in 2008, Barack Obama faced criticism for his upbringing in Indonesia.

It’s tempting to suppose this is an expression of a boorish—and typically American—lack of interest in other languages and cultures. More specifically, one smells an unreflective jingoism among Republicans. Does the GOP think that part of being serious Presidential timber is to speak only English? That’s probably an oversimplification. In general the issue is not whether a presidential candidate speaks more than one language—it’s which languages he speaks and how.

Historically, not many presidents have been bilingual. Some have had functional second languages, but the only one raised with two languages (English and Dutch) was Martin Van Buren, the eighth president back in the 19th Century.

Should bilingualism be something people look for in their country’s leader?