It is inspiring to see an American presidential candidate demonstrate fluency in a foreign language. I don’t know how well Obama can converse in Spanish, but this message comes across as conversational and that he has a grasp of the language rather than just parroting foreign sounds. We have come a long way since JFK said “Ich bin ein Berliner” (which translates to “I am a jelly-filled doughnut,” rather than the identification with the city residents as he intended). Despite the humorous translation, the gesture was appreciated by Germans who heard the speech, as well as those from a later generation who told me the story. In general, Americans have a poor reputation for understanding other cultures and reaching across boundaries.

I think every American child should learn a foreign language in elementary school for the same reason that I believe that all children should learn how to program a computer, solve trigonometric equations, and understand latin and greek word roots. While later skills can be learned well later, language is best learned at a very early age. They may never use these skills in their lives and quite possibly forget them by the time they have children of their own. The reason to learn these things is that your mind grows when you learn, you understand a different perspective, a different way of thinking. Facts that kids learn in school are incidental; they need to be learning how to think.

Learning a foreign language is particularly important because it teaches about people. It allows you to personally reach across barriers and communicate. There’s nothing like the connection you achieve when you speak to someone in their native tongue.

The website dotsub offers the ability for any member to translate captions for any video. This message from Obama where he speaks to the audience in Spanish has been translated into 19 languages.

Seesmic offers a new concept with its video conversations. When going to the website, its an odd sort of destination as I realize that while I personally just want to check out the tech, I have to actually think of something to say and I can bear another “hello” or “testing 1,2,3” clip. I find the other conversations to be an odd mix and while I loved the John Cleese interview, the replies that I listened to ranged from obvious to inane. I realized that I’m more interested in a listening to people I know, so I thought starting a conversation in the context of a blog post would make sense.

Please reply, I’d love to see and hear from anyone reading this blog whether I already know you or now. I know it is weird to throw your image and words into the ether, but I think we all need to participate in this new media in order to figure out what works.

Looking at seesmic for the first timeExpermental first post

Note: these guys are still in alpha. From a Flash video perspective they’ve done a wonderful job, but search is slow (I couldn’t find the interview that I liked to link it here) and a dialog kept popping up telling me that my session timed out, but otherwise they site continued to work. In terms of the user experience, they really need to help people out in terms of knowing what to do when you arrive at the site.

Last week I heard Jean Jennings Bartik speak at the Computer History Museum. She told wonderful stories about what it was like to be one of the first programmers, after she had worked on the job as a “computer” calculating ballistic tables for the war effort. She was one of 6 women who were chosen to program the ENIAC. The machine had just been built and the women had to figure out how to make it calculate a trajectory by connecting wires and setting its 3000 switches.

Following her experience programming the ENIAC, she went to work at Eckert & Mauchley Corporation. She’s captured some of the tales in an essay that describes the company as a “Technical Camelot”. Well-worth reading, but I can’t find it online. They handed out paper copies at the event.

It was amazing to hear her stories live and in person. Kathryn Kleiman has filmed all of the ENIAC programmers and currently raising funds for a full-length documentary. You can make a personal donation or, even better, see if your company would be interested in a corporate sponsorship. If you can make an introduction, let me know, since I’ve been informally helping Kathy with bay area fundraising.