American Bigshots Doing the Country Proud Overseas

1) Hillary Clinton, genuinely funny and admiration-generating in a stint this week with two of Australia's broadcast comics, Hamish and Andy. Really, this is worth watching for a side of Ms. Clinton she must not feel comfortable displaying that often in public back home:

2) Barack Obama, at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, making a speech about democracy in Indonesia, and a reprise on last year's appeal to Islam -- but also daring to talk a little bit in the Bahasa Indonesia ("language of Indonesia") he heard around him as a child. This is "daring" on general principles -- the potential embarrasment of exposing limited command of a foreign language in public settings -- but also in Obama's specific circumstances, where some critics will seize on any successful command and proving his alien status.

You can hear several brief passages of Obama in Bahasa in the first minute of the clip below, and the Ich bin... sentence that brought the house down begins at around 2:00.  For expert analysis of how Obama handles the language, see Ben Zimmer at Language Log, here. To my ear, after the two years my family spent living in Malaysia with its very similar language, it sounds as if he can handle the distinctive Indonesian "R" sound way better than most foreigners, for example me. (You can hear this with some names in the first 20 seconds, and when he gives his step father's name at about 2:30.) Also, even in his pronunciation of the name "Indonesia" in the first few seconds, you hear local-version vowels rather than normal American pronunciation. 

Starting around 4:10 he gives an impromptu aside -- enak, ya?, "delicious, right?", after talking about the food he loved as a child -- that sound entirely natural and also seems to illustrates a phenomenon very familiar among children who spent part of their upbringing outside their home country. They have a native-sounding accent, but a limited, child-level command of vocabulary and grammar. More on that at Language Log. And more on Policy Implications of the trip some other time too. For the moment, two American performance-moments that were seen as pluses overseas.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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