by H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman, The New York Times, September 8, 2012
It also has a multilingual dimension. In his 2011 visit to Puerto Rico, for example, he got cheers for using “boricua” to describe residents of the commonwealth. In “Dreams From My Father,” he described learning enough Spanish in Harlem to “exchange pleasantries” with his Puerto Rican neighbors; noted that his Kenyan father spoke with a British accent; explained that he learned some Hawaiian Creole from his maternal grandfather; and claimed that it took him “less than six months to learn Indonesia’s language, its customs, and its legends.” Later in life, Mr. Obama wrote about greeting some of his Kenyan relatives in Luo. In March, The Washington Post even reported on his sign-language interactions with a deaf community college student.
While Mr. Obama’s linguistic flexibility is a political asset, his style-shifting is not without its critics. There are some who read his “chameleon-like” speaking skills as not quite authentic, or as slightly patronizing — a sort of linguistic pandering. Some African-American critics have strongly objected to Mr. Obama’s use in the public sphere of phrases deemed to be part of black private discourses. In June 2008, when Mr. Obama criticized absent black fathers, his style-shifting was read as a coded message to white voters that he could be tough on his own people, and prompted the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson to grumble that Mr. Obama was “talking down to black people.”