Donald Trump: Language Ignorance on Proud Display

Donald Trump’s language ignorance is shocking. Let’s just say he’s no poster child for cross-cultural awareness. In the span of two weeks, he has managed to offend large swaths of the populace and again out himself as—how do I put this diplomatically?—an ignorant, arrogant jackass who has no business near the Oval Office.

Trump also likes to talk about himself… a lot.

Trump Mocks Asians

On August 25, while speaking to a crowd in Dubuque, Iowa, the Republican front-runner affected a bad East Asian accent, describing what it would be like negotiating with Japan or China:

“Negotiating with Japan, negotiating with China… When these people walk in the room, they don’t say, ‘Oh, hello, how’s the weather? It’s so beautiful outside, isn’t it lovely? How are the Yankees doing? Oh, they’re doing wonderful, great. They say, ‘We want deal!’” (Watch the clip below.)

(Hint: If you use a phrase like “these people” or “those people,” you probably don’t work well with others.)

Trump Scolds Jeb Bush for Speaking Spanish

One week later, on September 1, Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush was speaking to reporters in Miami. Speaking in Spanish, Bush said about Trump, “El hombre no es conservador” (“The man is not a conservative”).

Apparently the Donald was threatened by five words spoken in a foreign language. In an interview with, Trump said, “I like Jeb. He’s a nice man. But he should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”


Sarah Palin Backs Up Trump (for Scolding Jeb Bush for Speaking Spanish)

Of course, Trump is not alone in his dislike of foreign languages and—I may be going out on a limb here—the people who speak them. On September 6, Sarah Palin, never one to shy away from an opportunity to reveal her ignorance, said that immigrants to the U.S. should “speak American.”

Sarah, Sarah, Sarah. The main language used in the U.S. is called English. But it’s not the only language we speak here. In fact, almost 400 languages are spoken in the U.S. today. (Don’t worry, Ms. Palin, this is just a fact, not a gotcha question.)

Business and Politics Do Occasionally Mix

I don’t normally discuss politics on this blog, which is an extension of the company that I own and operate. I prefer not to risk alienating prospective clients by discussing something controversial.

But there’s a significant linguistic/cultural angle here, and regular readers of our blog know that we primarily write about language and language-related issues. The fact that this post is about something topical is just a bonus. Besides, I think it’s safe to say that our bottom line is not threatened. After all, people who support a virulently racist presidential candidate are not part of our target market.

So, to recap: A man who wants to be the president of the United States a) publicly mocks Asians and b) scolds an opponent for speaking Spanish in the U.S. A man who wants to be president of the United States. This is a position that, you know, occasionally requires the individual to meet and negotiate with foreign heads of state.

language ignorance

“Culturally tone-deaf” would be a understatement: Trump made fun of Asians and chided Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish. (“Donald Trump” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

So, just to take one totally out-there, no-one-woud-ever-say-such-a-thing hypothetical example, a presidential candidate should never label citizens of a major U.S. ally and trading partner as, say, rapists. (Oh, and he probably shouldn’t defend such a remark, either.) Next to Trump, former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling looks like a high-minded uniter.

Though Bush’s use of Spanish grated on Trump, Bush was only being accommodating (or shrewd, depending upon your point of view). Either way, he was speaking with his interlocutors in their language, an act that has obvious pragmatic benefits and enormous affective benefits.

Next to Trump, former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling looks like a high-minded uniter.

According to research by Wolfgang Wölck, “nearly half the world’s population is functionally bilingual.” (That’s “bilingual,” folks, not just “can speak a second language,” which would give us a much higher percentage.)

Here in the U.S., though, speaking a second language can be a liability. But when you consider the fact that close to 40 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish, it’s not surprising that two Republican presidential candidates out of a group of 17 (as of this writing) speak Spanish. (Marco Rubio is the other.) If anything, it’s surprising that more presidential candidates from either major party don’t speak Spanish.

Why Language Ignorance Hurts Presidential Candidates

Does an American presidential candidate really need to speak a second language? Should Americans elect a POTUS only if he or she is fluent in Spanish, Mandarin, or German? No. After all, you certainly couldn’t argue that position on practical grounds. But what a valuable break from the norm it would be! Speaking a second language is an inclusive act, one that helps bridge gaps in culture and thinking.

What U.S. presidential candidates do need to do, however, is recognize that millions and millions of people in this country do not speak English as a first language. Yes, some of them are here illegally. But many of them are not. Many are U.S. citizens and green card holders. Many are visiting students, researchers, and businesspeople, some of whom may want to apply for U.S. citizenship one day.

A candidate who actually wants to reach people—regardless of political platform—will find the task much easier if he or she speaks the language of the target audience. But given Americans’ general unwillingness to learn foreign languages to a basic level of familiarity (let alone proficiency), I would settle for candidates who at least acknowledge the influence of Spanish in our country.

Jeb Bush has said that he will continue speaking Spanish whenever he feels like it. I’ve got to think that the 40 million Spanish speakers in this country have a better opinion of him than they do of Trump. And that’s too bad for the Donald, because insulting people won’t win him their votes.

Evan Osnos, “The Trump Doctrine: ‘We Want Deal,’” The New Yorker, August 28, 2015.
Wolfgang Wölck, “Types of Natural Bilingual Behavior: A Review and Revision,” Bilingual Review / La Revista Bilingüe, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September–December 1987/1988), pp. 3–16.