Jeb's bilingualism

« previous post | next post »

Jeb Bush gave a Spanish-language interview on Sunday with Telemundo's José Díaz-Balart. This is the first time since the launch of his presidential campaign that his functional bilingualism has been on full display.

So how did he do? Here is the assessment of National Journal's Alexia Fernández Campbell ("How Well Does Jeb Bush Habla Español?"):

It's clear that the Republican presidential candidate speaks Spanish fluently (with a gringo accent, of course). During the sit-down interview, Bush discussed immigration reform, Cuban foreign policy, and the Puerto Rican debt crisis with only a handful of minor word-gender mistakes.

Bush, who is married to a Mexican woman and who has been embraced by Miami's Cuban exile community, kept his Spanish mostly neutral during the chat. You could only hear a slight trace of Miami in his accent, when he dropped the last "s" in some of his words. He did refer to himself as a niño popis when he met his wife, Columba, during a high school trip to central Mexico. That's Mexican slang for "spoiled boy."

If Jeb made it to the White House, he would be the first bilingual U.S. president in 70 years. The last one was FDR, who spoke French and German fluently. Past presidents have brushed up on their Spanish, knowing how important it is to reach Latino voters. But few, including President Obama, can really say much.

While Obama doesn't speak much Spanish, his Indonesian skills are not half bad, considering he hasn't lived in Indonesia since he was ten years old. See my series of Language Log posts:

Now, could Obama have made it through a 20-minute Indonesian-only interview as Jeb Bush did in Spanish? I suspect not. The closest he came was a March 2010 White House interview with a correspondent from Indonesia's RCTI.

Before the interview proper begins, Obama gives a brief Indonesian response to the question of whether he can speak the language. He says, "Masih bisa omong sedikit," or "I still can speak a little," before returning to English ("I used to be fluent, but I don't get a chance to practice"). Then, at the beginning of the formal interview, he exchanges pleasantries, responding to "Apa kabar?" ("How are you?") with "Baik-baik, terima kasih" ("I'm fine, thank you"). Again he is asked about his Indonesian proficiency: "Masih bisa bahasa Indonesia?" ("Can you still speak Indonesian?"). Obama says in idiomatic Indonesian, "Masih bisa sedikit, sudah lupa banyak tapi" ("I still can [speak] a little, but I've forgotten a lot") and continues in English. Then, at the very end, he tells the interviewer, "Terima kasih, selamat jalan" ("Thank you, goodbye").

(Full transcript of the Obama interview is here, as an appendix to Muh. Shohibussirri's 2011 thesis, "An Analysis of Politeness Strategy in Putra Nababan's Interview with Barack Obama." I haven't come across a transcript of Jeb's Telemundo interview, but here is an English translation.)

Whether FDR could have held a wide-ranging interview in French or German, or Herbert Hoover in Mandarin Chinese, I cannot say. But I bet Martin Van Buren could have done quite well in Dutch. (See this Wikipedia page for more on presidential bilingualism.)


  1. Theophylact said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 11:02 am

    A President John Kerry would have spoken French quite well, it appears. That was of course one of the points made against him in the 2004 campaign.

    (Mitt Romney, who rang doorbells in France as a Mormon missionary, is also a fluent francophone.)

  2. Guy said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 11:51 am

    Certainly fluent. Would any native speakers like to comment on his accent? Aside from the obvious realization of [ɹ] for /r/ (but note that he usually successfully produces [ɾ], maintaining the phonemic contrast) to my non-native ears the most obvious features are that /e/ is low, Jeb seems to use his unmodified DRESS vowel for this usually, occasionally /o/ sounds low and I also hear glottalization in certain consonant clusters. On the other hand it's clear that he's learned to avoid many common English-speaker "mistakes": /o/ is not usually diphthongized, he produces [β] without apparent difficulty. I'm not sure that his /ð/ is sufficiently affricated although it sounds to me like he is making an attempt not to just use English /d/. I never once noticed his /j/ realized as a fricative (though I may have missed it) and it sounds like he's articulating it in a way where it would never tend to do that, but I don't know if frication is a status marker in one direction or the other?

  3. Guy said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

    I should probably clarify that by /j/ I mean the "i griega" or "y" sound, not /x/, the "jota" or "j" sound. I don't feel at all qualified to judge the correctness of his /x/ because mine is absolutely terrible (I think I tend to overcompensate and make it too fricative).

  4. Eric P Smith said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 2:56 pm

    While Obama doesn't speak much Spanish, his Indonesian skills are not half bad…

    To me, "not half bad" means very bad indeed.

    [(bgz) This may be an AmE vs. BrE issue. For me, "not half bad" can only mean "just fine." I see that UK dictionaries suggest another very different reading of "not half" (Oxford: "to an extreme degree; very much so"; Collins: "really; very; indeed").]

  5. K Chang said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 3:11 pm

    By my colloquial ears, Jeb does indeed speak fluent Spanish with a Gringo accent. It's almost like Yanks speaking with a British accent. It sounds slightly off, even though diction is good, and he's not translating on the fly except once in a while when he was going "uh…." buying time to recall the exact word he needed. He knows his idioms (much better than my knowledge, that's for sure). I can do the gringo accent, if I have to. :D He's not quite rolling his r's. His vowels are slightly off, probably why it sounds accented. But then, I'm no linguist or accent specialist.

  6. Eric P Smith said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 5:35 pm

    Thanks Ben: and thanks for repositioning my closing blockquote tag.

  7. Rubrick said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 10:30 pm

    It says something about both the restraint and the intellectual rigor of LL readers that no one has yet made the obvious joke about Bush's bilingualism making up for his elder brother's inability to speak any languages fluently.

    Um, until now I guess. *sheepish look*

  8. Steven Marzuola said,

    August 4, 2015 @ 10:48 pm

    He's better than "not bad". I'd give him a B+/A-.

    It's clear that he has frequent conversations in Spanish, but the people around him have let him get away with errors common to native English speakers. One occasional problem is lack of agreement between nouns and adjectives, for example: nouns that end in the letter yet are masculine. "un tema política" = should be "tema político". He also confuse the verbs "ser" and "estar". Finally, he does literal translations of some colloquialisms, that might be probably be understood by people who know English but will be confusing otherwise.

  9. Vilinthril said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 3:22 am

    On the phonetic side, I find his R's to be most jarring, but his L's sound a bit weird to me, too.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

    I was intrigued by the "kept his Spanish mostly neutral" claim in the block quote from the Nat'l Journal piece, because it implies that the writer assumes Bush is competent enough that he could to some degree code-switch between varieties of Spanish if he wanted to (perhaps by making something about his diction less "neutral" and "more Miami"?). Although I guess certain kinds of code-switching aren't that hard – as a 17-year-old with a few years of not very rigorous US-public-school German I learned to some extent how to self-consciously substitute Swabian-with-heavy-American-accent pronunciation for Hochdeutch-with-obvious-American-accent pronunciation of a few shibboleth words.

  11. Yet another John said,

    August 5, 2015 @ 5:47 pm

    I agree with @Steven Marzuola and others that Jeb's Spanish is pretty good and deserves an A- for effort. Certainly his rhythm, fluency, and command of the vocabulary are better than that of many ex-pats who have lived in Latin America for years, and I'm not sure I would do any better in a high-pressure televised interview.


    Other than gender agreement, there are some grammatical problems with the verbs. Particularly with not using the subjunctive enough. Hard to say without seeing a good transcript of the whole interview, but did Jeb ever once produce a correct subjunctive verb form…? I heard a couple of instances of "para que hay" (where "para que haya" would have been correct).

    More problematic, around 6:20 he begins a long sentence, presumably about what he believes immigrants *should do* to be able to stay legally in the US, which is rendered confusing by his resolute avoidance of the subjunctive. When he says, "aprenden inglés, reciben…" etc., he presumably means, "que aprendan inglés, que reciban…"

    @Guy: I noticed nothing strange about his pronunciation of the Spanish consonant written y. It can vary between being an affricate or a fricative. If it sounded, as you would say, "more fricative," then that would be a strongly-marked feature of Argentinian or Uruguayan Spanish.

    @J.W. Brewer: In the article, it is clear in context that the author was referring to Jeb's lexical choices (not his prosody or accent). There are many markedly Mexican expressions that nobody elsewhere would say, and indeed some foreigners living there seem to copy regionalisms without appreciating how strange they sound (I'm thinking of words like "platicar" or "chavo"). He does do a good job of sticking to a "neutral" pan-Hispanic lexicon.

RSS feed for comments on this post