DAYTON, Ohio - Democrat Barack Obama batted away conservative criticism Friday over a comment he made about Americans' lack of foreign language skills.
"The Republicans jumped on this. I said, absolutely immigrants need to learn English, but we also need to learn foreign languages," the likely Democratic nominee said as the 1,000-plus crowd in a school gymnasium cheered. It's a position he long has held.
"This is an example of some of the problems we get into when somebody attacks you for saying the truth, which is: We should want our children with more knowledge. We should want our children to have more skills. There's nothing wrong with that. That's a good thing. I know, because I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing," Obama said chuckling as his audience did the same.
At issue was a remark the Illinois senator made Monday in Powder Springs, Ga., that drew laughter from the crowd — but disdain from conservatives and groups advocating English as the official U.S. language. His remark has caused buzz on the Internet and talk radio.
The Americans for Legal Immigration PAC said in a statement, "Barack Obama has stepped on a political land mine by stating Americans should be forced to learn to speak Spanish." But that's not what Obama said.
Obama was answering a question on education when he said he doesn't understand people who say "we need English only."
"I agree that immigrants should learn English," Obama said. "But 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."
He argued that the country should be emphasizing foreign language study in classrooms.
"You know, 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 is 'merci beaucoup!'" Obama said, laughing.