Tribune-Star columnist Mark Bennett

I stood with fellow sportswriters inside the Cincinnati dugout awaiting a pregame interview with Reds Manager Lou Piniella during the 1990 World Series.

We watched Piniella finish another interview, first. He sat on the bench between two reporters, one from an American media outlet and the other from a Latino radio network. It was fascinating. Piniella carried on a simultaneous discussion with both guys, effortlessly alternating between English and Spanish.

No hesitation. No pauses to transition his brain from one language to the other.

Piniella's fluency was as smooth as a 6-4-3 double play. It came naturally. As the grandson of immigrants from Spain, Piniella had grown up in a bilingual household in Tampa, Fla.

Bilingualism received an unexpected nationwide spotlight this week. During Wednesday night's Democratic presidential primary at Miami, three of the 10 candidates onstage delivered at least one comment in Spanish. One of the five NBC moderators, Jose Diaz-Balart, asked Beto O'Rourke a question in Spanish, and the former Texas congressman responded in that language.

Of course, in these polarized political times, the bilingual element of the initial debate of the 2020 campaign drew elicited reviews. Some saw the gesture as an outreach to the 13 percent of the U.S. population that speaks Spanish, especially the hometown audience in Miami, where nearly 70 percent of residents are Latino. 

But critics derided it as pandering, insisting that Latino voters would not be swayed. Others praised the effort but also joked about a couple of candidates' clumsy Spanish.

Ideally, the result is a better understanding of each other as Americans.

Regrettably, I completed 16 years of education without studying a foreign language. I came close — for a day, at least.

I reported for the first day of an upper-level economics class in Holmstedt Hall during my college years at Indiana State, sat down and waited on the professor at the front of the room. He started a roll call, and after a few students responded with "here" or "present," the professor stopped and announced, "From here on, no more English." Dumbfounded, I walked up to his desk and asked, "Is this macroeconomics?"

"No, French," he answered. The econ class had been moved to a different room. I was relieved, but now wish I'd given French a try.

My monolingual status isn't unique, at least not in the U.S. Only 20 percent of students in grades K-through-12 throughout all 50 states and the District of Columbia were enrolled in foreign language classes in 2017, according to the nonprofit American Councils for International Education, cited in a Pew Research Center report last August.

Indiana fell slightly short of that mark, with 19.57 percent 1,165,262 students involved in foreign language studies. No foreign language credits are necessary to earn a technical honors, general or Core 40 high school degree in the state, the Indiana Department of Education explained Thursday. Only the academic honors diploma requires foreign language studies — either six credits in one language or four credits in two different languages.

New Jersey topped Pew's states list at 51.18 percent, while New Mexico ranked last at 8.5 percent.

By contrast, 92 percent of students in Europe — covering 29 nations — learn a foreign language. Most begin those required classes between the ages of 6 and 9. More than 20 of those countries require kids to study a second foreign language for at least a year. Among Europe's overall population, adults and kids, 53 percent can speak at least one second language.

For U.S. students who study the languages of others, there are benefits. They can expect an improvement in their English skills, higher SAT scores, more job offers, better travel experiences, an enhanced understanding of literature, stronger listening skills, sharper mental discipline, a keener grasp of other fields of learning, and success in college, according to a foreign language curriculum description on Terre Haute North Vigo High School's website.

Even a president could benefit. Historians say nearly half of America's 45 presidents were fluent in at least one language other than English, but the last fully bilingual Oval Office occupant was Franklin Roosevelt, who also spoke French and German. John Adams and son John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover mastered second, third, fourth or fifth languages. (Jefferson reportedly reached the latter plateau, including Spanish.) A few since FDR have dabbled in second languages.

The injection of Spanish dialogue into this week's debate among Democratic candidates, all seeking to challenge Donald Trump in 2020 and become the 46th president, will help Latino Americans to "feel spoken to," said Ann Rider, chair of Indiana State University's Department of Languages, Literature and Linguistics.

"The ability to speak another language [any language] also tells voters that this candidate thinks locally and globally, thinks of the U.S. as part of the global world, and is a person who respects other cultures via the use of the language," Rider stated.

"While a president is unlikely to use a foreign language in diplomacy, the ability to speak to people in their language is a sign of courtesy and respect," Rider added, "and goes a long way toward demonstrating some point for common understanding."

In the meantime, I can't help imagining a debate moderator asking Thomas Jefferson a question in Spanish and the Founding Father answering in Spanish, then saying, "Shall I repeat that in French, too?"

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.