No, Tim Kaine’s Spanish Is Not ‘Flawless’

One of the big news stories in the past couple of weeks has been Hillary Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine as her running mate. What made this otherwise unexciting event catch my attention was the media’s outsize focus on Kaine’s Spanish proficiency, rather than on more traditional qualifications like his impressive political career or even academic record. (Don’t believe me? Google “Tim Kaine” and you’ll find that nearly EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE has to do with his Spanish proficiency.) At first, I thought all the hysteria about his language proficiency was frankly a little silly, as in many — if not most — other parts of the world it is normal, even expected, that people speak more than one language proficiently. But then I saw this in my Twitter feed:

Flawless…really? I thought to myself, “if he is receiving all of this attention, he must be a skilled orator in Spanish, right?” Then I thought, “how could he have achieved a higher level of Spanish proficiency than I after just a year in Honduras?” This piqued my interest, so I dug deeper. After a quick YouTube search, I found this interview he did in Spanish:

His Spanish proficiency is okay, but flawless? Far from it. Deserving of a plethora of media attention? No. Beyond what every American can and should be expected to achieve? Absolutely not!

There are a couple of reasons why this matters. First, it is reflective of the vague and inaccurate language we use to describe language proficiency, a problem which I discussed in a previous post and, therefore, won’t discuss further here.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it highlights the importance our society places on proficiency in a foreign language. Rather than focus on his Harvard law degree or the fact that he is one of only a handful of politicians to have held the offices of mayor, governor, and senator, the media immediately focused on his Spanish language proficiency, even going so far as to imply that it will help Hillary Clinton win the presidency of the United States. (One could also reasonably conclude from all this that Kaine’s proficiency was a big part of the reason Hillary selected him in the first place.) So, this begs a question — at a time when someone is selected for the vice presidency in part for his language proficiency (and the media obsesses over it), why are language programs being cut in schools and being replaced with classes like coding, which at least one state believes is a foreign language? Our society values foreign language ability — the evidence couldn’t be clearer — so why aren’t Americans being encouraged and expected to achieve it?

In closing, Tim Kaine’s Spanish is good — not flawless, and certainly not above the level every American can and should be expected to achieve. His desire to learn Spanish and willingness to use it with his constituents is admirable, but frankly shouldn’t be remarkable. Education at its best prepares us to be active and productive members of society, and what more evidence do we need than this that productive members of our society, of all societies, should be multilingual?