At least 21 legislators, or 20 percent of 105 senators and representatives, speak a language other than English, reports AP reporter John Miller, belying the image some might have of Idaho as a isolated hinterland whose residents pay little mind to what happens beyond their borders. A big reason: Idaho's population is 27 percent Mormon, and least 16 legislators, all men, learned second languages — German, French, Spanish and Portuguese, and Maori — in preparation for a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission. Nearly all of them say having a second language in their linguistic arsenal helps them in their work as lawmakers. Click below for Miller's full report on Idaho lawmakers' foreign language skills.
Lawmaker language skills belie Idaho's rural rep
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Speaking a second language lets Rep. Sue Chew talk with her mom, Gloria, in their mother tongue, Cantonese. But it also stirs memories of the sting of a grade-school teacher's ruler — for not speaking English.
Rep. Ken Andrus acknowledges he doesn't get much chance to practice his second language, Cook Island Maori, or Rarotongan, on his Lava Hot Springs ranch. He learned while on a Mormon mission to the South Pacific island nation in the mid-1950s.
And for Rep. Kelley Packer, learning American Sign Language brought her closer to her aunt and uncle, both of whom are hearing impaired.
Idaho may be a landlocked state, with 84 percent of its population hailing from European stock and just a tenth of residents with Hispanic or Latino roots. But at least 21 legislators, or 20 percent of 105 senators and representatives, speak a language other than English, belying the image some might have of Idaho as a isolated hinterland whose residents pay little mind to what happens beyond their borders.
A big reason: Idaho's population is 27 percent Mormon, and least 16 legislators, all men, learned second languages — German, French, Spanish and Portuguese, in addition to Andrus' Maori — in preparation for a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission.
Nearly all of them say having a second language in their linguistic arsenal helps them in their work as lawmakers.
Rep. Linden Bateman is among six lawmakers who learned German for LDS missions. He still corresponds with friends in Germany and jumps at every chance to speak a language that he says "has soaked into my bones."
"The German experience has enriched my personality and has made me more open-minded about how people think beyond our borders," said Bateman, R-Idaho Falls and a former high school history teacher.
Chew, who grew up in Oakland, Calif., says inhabiting both Chinese and English cultures has deepened her understanding of America's evolving relationship with minorities.
"At school, we were scolded if we spoke anything other than English," said Chew, a Boise Democrat. "I did not realize I was speaking Chinese, I was just speaking. In our home since we are bilingual, I did not realize that my siblings and I were Americanizing our Chinese words and Chinesifying our American words."
Packer, a Republican from McCammon, said learning ASL infused in her a special interest in challenges that people with disabilities face. A freshman, she said it's already had an impact just weeks into her term.
"I made it a priority to visit the booths of the hearing impaired when they came to the Capitol... so I could more fully understand what their main concerns are," Packer said.
And Andrus said his experience in the Cook Islands, where there were plenty of coconut palms but no electricity during his nearly three-year mission stint, helped steel him for life's lean times. "I'm comfortable in meager circumstances," he said.
Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, took French in college but learned Spanish on his own, traveling in Mexico and central America. He's read all the novels of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa — in the language they were written. It's also allowed him to spend time with the indigenous Mayan people of Guatemala's southern highlands.
"These experiences have given me a different point of view from typical European traditions and this point of view has informed my service in the Idaho Legislature," Bock said.
Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, studied Arabic as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University in Utah and at American University in Cairo. He worked for years in the Middle East for international software companies. Speaking a second language helps break down barriers with people from other cultures, he said, adding years abroad — he also worked in Japan — helped open his eyes to the challenges U.S. students face.
"I have a really good understanding of who we're competing against for jobs," said DeMordaunt, House Education Committee chairman.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, recalls how many Italians were a little bemused by the rangy American cowboy from southern Idaho's desert, walking the medieval alleys of the ancient Hapsburg port of Trieste on the Adriatic Sea in the crisp white dress shirt that's the trademark of the Mormon missionary abroad.
Hill served his mission in western Germany's industrial area along the Ruhr River and still reads German daily, currently working through a translated edition of John Grisham's "The Firm." The other day, he and a German-speaking Senate aide made a lunch date where the only English they spoke was to order.
"We had a great time, but I have to tell you, we were both exhausted when we finished," concedes Hill, R-Rexburg.
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, recalls arriving in Lisbon, Portugal in January 1980 for his LDS mission during an era of tumult: The Cold War was on, Ronald Reagan had just become president, and Portugal's left-leaning unions would often strike, grinding the country to a halt.
He found himself not merely an emissary for his church, but also his country. So powerful was the experience, he arrived home in 1981 and promptly switched his college major from business to political science.
"It was a defining moment in my life politically," Cameron remembers. "I would get asked to defend American policy and to describe the differences between our forms of government — in Portuguese."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.