List of multilingual presidents of the United States

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
Jump to: navigation, search
Thomas Jefferson claimed to read and write six different languages.

Of the 44 presidents of the United States, at least half have displayed proficiency in speaking or writing a language other than English. Of these, only one, Martin Van Buren, learned English as his second language; his first language was Dutch. Four of the earliest presidents were multilingual, with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson demonstrating proficiency in a number of foreign languages.

James A. Garfield not only knew Ancient Greek and Latin, but used his ambidexterity to write both at the same time. Both Roosevelts spoke French, and Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German. Herbert Hoover spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese.

18th and 19th centuries

John Adams

Adams, the second president of the United States, learned to read Latin at a young age.[1] In preparation for attending Harvard University, Adams attended a school for improving his Latin skills.[2] While posted in France, Adams became fluent in French.[3]

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson spoke and read multiple languages. After his death, a number of other books, dictionaries, and grammar manuals in various languages were found in Jefferson's library, suggesting that he studied additional languages beyond those he spoke and wrote well. Among these were books in Arabic, Irish, and Dutch.[4] Regarding Spanish, Jefferson told John Quincy Adams that he had learned the language over the course of nineteen days while sailing from the United States to France. He had borrowed a Spanish grammar and a copy of Don Quixote from a friend, and read them on the voyage. Adams expressed skepticism, noting Jefferson's tendency to tell "large stories."[5]

James Madison

James Madison began his studies of Latin at the age of twelve[6] and had mastered Greek and Latin by the time he entered the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. He produced many translations of Latin orations of Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel.[6] He also studied Horace and Ovid.[6] He learned Greek as an admissions requirement for higher college learning.[6]

While in college, Madison learned to speak and read Hebrew.[1] When he could have graduated, Madison remained at college for an additional year to study ethics and Hebrew in greater depth.[7]

James Monroe

James Monroe adopted many French customs while a diplomat in Paris, including learning fluent French. The entire Monroe family knew the language, and often spoke it with one another at home.[8]

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams went to school in both France and the Netherlands, and spoke fluent French and conversational Dutch.[9] Adams strove to improve his abilities in Dutch throughout his life, and at times translated a page of Dutch a day to help improve his mastery of the language.[10] Official documents that he translated were sent to the secretary of state of the United States, so that Adams' studies would serve a useful purpose as well.[10] When his father appointed him United States ambassador to Prussia, Adams dedicated himself to becoming proficient in German in order to give him the tools to strengthen relations between the two countries.[11] He improved his skills by translating articles from German to English, and his studies made his diplomatic efforts more successful.[11]

In addition to the two languages he spoke fluently, he also studied Italian, though he admitted to making little progress in it since he had no one with whom to practice speaking and hearing the language.[10] Adams also read Latin very well, translated a page a day of Latin text,[12] and studied classical Greek in his spare time.[13]

Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren was the only American president who did not speak English as his first language. He was born in Kinderhook, New York, a primarily Dutch community, spoke Dutch as his first language, and continued to speak it at home.[14] He learned English as a second language while attending Kinderhook's local school house. He obtained a small understanding of Latin while studying at Kinderhook Academy and solidified his understanding of English there.[15]

William Henry Harrison

At Hampden–Sydney College, William Henry Harrison spent a considerable time learning Latin, and favored reading about the military history of ancient Rome and Julius Caesar from native language histories. At the college, he also learned a small amount of French.[16]

John Tyler

John Tyler excelled at school, where he learned both Latin and Greek.[17]

James K. Polk

Although James K. Polk had no background in foreign languages upon entering college, he proved a quick learner.[18] Upon graduating from the University of North Carolina, he was asked to give the welcoming address at graduation; he chose to do so in Latin. He proved very proficient in classical languages, and received honors in both Greek and Latin on his degree.[19]

James Buchanan

James Buchanan studied a traditional classical curriculum, which included Latin and Greek, at the private Old Stone Academy before transferring to Dickinson College. He excelled in both subjects.[20]

Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes studied Latin and Greek at the Isaac Webb school in Middletown, Connecticut. He initially struggled with the languages, but soon became proficient in them. He also briefly studied French there.[21]

James A. Garfield

James A. Garfield knew both Latin and Greek. As the first ambidextrous president, Garfield entertained his friends by having them ask him questions, and then writing the answer in Latin with one hand while simultaneously writing the answer in Greek with the other.[22]

Chester A. Arthur

Chester A. Arthur was known to be comfortable enough in Latin and Greek to converse with other men who knew the languages.[23]

20th century

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt spoke French. A foreign correspondent noted that, although he spoke clearly and quickly, he had a German accent while speaking in French.[24] He read both German and French very well, and kept a good number of books written in these languages in his personal library.[25] He quite often read fiction, philosophy, religion, and history books in both French and German.[26] He was most comfortable with informal discussions in French, though he made two public addresses in the West Indies in French in 1916.[26] He recognized that, while he spoke French rapidly and was able to understand others, he used unusual grammar "without tense or gender." John Hay, secretary of state under Roosevelt, commented that Roosevelt spoke odd, grammatically incorrect French, but was never difficult to understand.[26]

Though he could read and understand the language thoroughly, Roosevelt struggled to speak German. When Roosevelt attempted to speak with a native German, he had to apologize after botching the attempt.[26] While not fluent in the language, Roosevelt was also able to read Italian.[27] Though he at one point studied Greek and Latin, Roosevelt found both languages a "dreary labor" to translate.[28]

Roosevelt understood some of the Dutch language and taught songs in Dutch to his children and grandchildren. This is documented in a letter in English which he wrote to the painter Nelly Bodenheim in Amsterdam.[29]

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson learned German as part of earning his Ph.D. in history and political science from Johns Hopkins University. However, he never claimed proficiency in the language. While he did read German sources when they were available, he often complained about the amount of time and effort it took him.[30]

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Hoover, once translated a book from Latin to English.[31] The pair took five years, and sacrificed much of their spare time, to translating the Latin mining tract De re metallica.[32] While at Stanford University, Hoover had access to the extensive library of John Casper Branner, where he found the important mining book which had never been fully translated into English.[32] For years, five nights of the week were spent translating the book, including naming objects that the author had merely described.[32] The Hoovers were also fluent in Mandarin Chinese, having lived and worked in China in the 1890s and 1900s, and would converse in Mandarin when they wanted to keep their conversations private from guests or the press.[33]

Franklin Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke both German and French. He was raised speaking both, as his early education consisted of governesses from Europe preparing him for boarding school in his teens. In particular, he had a German governess and a French governess who taught him their respective languages. A Swiss governess, Jeanne Sandoz, furthered his studies in both languages,[34] particularly stressing French.[35] Roosevelt spent one summer of his schooling in Germany;[36] both his time with his instructors and his frequent trips abroad allowed him to master both German and French, though he always spoke them with a distinct New England accent.[37] Though he never had a mastery of the language, his governesses also taught him a limited amount of Latin.[38]

Roosevelt gave a bilingual speech (in English and French) during a 1936 visit to Quebec City. [39]

Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter has a functional command of Spanish, but has never been grammatically perfect.[40] Carter studied the language at the United States Naval Academy[41] and continued his studies while an officer of the United States Navy.[42] Carter sometimes spoke Spanish in 1976 television campaign advertisements, but in his native South Georgia accent.[citation needed]

He could speak fairly fluently, but joked about his sometimes flawed understanding of the language while discoursing with native speakers.[43] Carter has given a number of addresses in the Spanish language, which he wrote himself,[44] and sometimes spoke to constituents in Spanish.[42] To practice his Spanish, he and his wife Rosalynn read the Bible in Spanish to each other every night.[45]

Bill Clinton

While a freshman at Georgetown University, Bill Clinton was required to choose a foreign language to study, and chose German because he was "impressed by the clarity and precision of the language."[46] He is able to hold casual conversation in the language.[47] Later, while giving a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, he gave part of a speech in German, pledging to the 50,000 Germans gathered there that "Amerika steht an Ihrer Seite jetzt und für immer" ("America stands on your side, now and forever").[48]

21st century

George W. Bush on May 5 (Cinco de Mayo), 2001, delivering the first Weekly Radio Address of the President of the United States broadcast in both English and Spanish by any president.[49]

George W. Bush

George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and has delivered speeches in the language.[50] His speeches in Spanish have had English interspersed throughout.[51]

Barack Obama

Barack Obama has an elementary understanding of Indonesian, having lived in Indonesia as a child, and was enrolled at Indonesian language schools from the ages of six to ten. He has demonstrated this familiarity with the language in both interviews and speeches—notably the 2011 address he gave to the University of Indonesia.[52]


Spoken natively Fluency in writing or speaking Conversational or partial mastery
File:☑.svg Green tickY Small uppercase letter X.svg
Presidency President Dutch French German Greek Hebrew Italian Latin Mandarin Chinese Spanish Indonesian
2 John Adams Green tickY Green tickY
3 Thomas Jefferson Green tickY Green tickY Green tickY Green tickY Green tickY
4 James Madison Green tickY Green tickY Green tickY
5 James Monroe Green tickY
6 John Quincy Adams Small uppercase letter X.svg Green tickY Green tickY Small uppercase letter X.svg Green tickY
8 Martin Van Buren File:☑.svg
9 William Henry Harrison Small uppercase letter X.svg Green tickY
10 John Tyler Green tickY Green tickY
11 James K. Polk Green tickY Green tickY
15 James Buchanan Green tickY Green tickY
19 Rutherford B. Hayes Green tickY Green tickY
20 James A. Garfield Green tickY Green tickY
21 Chester A. Arthur Green tickY Green tickY
26 Theodore Roosevelt Green tickY Green tickY Small uppercase letter X.svg
28 Woodrow Wilson Green tickY
31 Herbert Hoover Green tickY Green tickY
32 Franklin D. Roosevelt Green tickY Green tickY Small uppercase letter X.svg
39 Jimmy Carter Small uppercase letter X.svg
42 Bill Clinton Small uppercase letter X.svg
43 George W. Bush Small uppercase letter X.svg
44 Barack Obama Small uppercase letter X.svg

See also



  1. 1.0 1.1 Crapo (2007), 4.
  2. McLeod (1976), 23.
  3. McCullough (2001), 321.
  4. Berkes, Anna; Bryan Craig (10 December 2008). "Languages Jefferson Spoke or Read". Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Retrieved 22 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Berkes, Anna; Bryan Craig (10 December 2008). "Spanish Language". Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Retrieved 22 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Ketcham (1990), 20.
  7. Hodge and Nolan (2007), 35.
  8. Budinger, Meghan. "Our Face to the World: Clothing exhibit unveils lives of James and Elizabeth Monroe". UMW Magazine. Fredericksburg, Virginia: University of Mary Washington. Retrieved 28 April 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Adams (1874), 229
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Adams (1874), 176.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "John Quincy Adams Biography Page 2". Adams National Historic Park. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service. 30 July 2006. p. 2. Retrieved 25 July 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Adams (1874), 177.
  13. Adams (1874), 380.
  14. Widmer (2005), ii.
  15. Holland (1836), 15.
  16. Owens (2007), 14.
  17. May and Wilentz (2008), 13.
  18. Mayo (2006), 11.
  19. Behrman (2005), 18.
  20. Baker (2004), 12.
  21. Trefousse (2002), 5.
  22. "James A. Garfield". American Presidents Life Portraits. Washington, D.C.: C-SPAN. 2010. Retrieved 22 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> This source does not support the statements that this writing was done simultaneously and that it was the answers to questions posed by the friends.
  23. Reeves (1975), 21.
  24. New York Times (1909), 2. 7 December 2022
  25. New York Times (1898), IMS10. 7 December 2022
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 Wagenknecht (2008), 39.
  27. Morris, Edmund (22 March 2002). "A Matter of Extreme Urgency: Theodore Roosevelt, Wilhelm II, and the Venezuela Crisis of 1902". Naval War College Review. Newport, Rhode Island: Naval War College. Retrieved 22 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Wagenknecht (2008), 38.
  29. Undated letter to Nelly Bodenhem, copy in the possession of Pieter J. Dijkstra, the Netherlands.
  30. Pestritto (2005), 34.
  31. Kelly, Nataly (2009). "Caught in the Grips of Linguistic Paranoia". The New York Times. New York City: The New York Times Company. Retrieved 22 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 Lewiston Evening News (1933), 5.
  33. King, David (2009), Herbert Hoover, Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish, ISBN 0-7614-3626-X<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. Harper (1996), 14.
  35. Coker (2005), 4.
  36. Harper (1996), 17.
  37. Coker (2005), 6.
  38. Freedman (1992), 9.
  39. 96 - Address in Quebec, Canada
  40. Poser, Bill (8 July 2007). "The Linguistic Ability of the Presidential Candidates". Language Log. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 22 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  41. Carter (2004), 35.
  42. 42.0 42.1 Associated Press (1976), 46.
  43. McBride (1978), 1.
  44. The Washington Post (2002), 2.
  45. Cadwalladr, Carole (11 September 2011). "Jimmy Carter: 'We never dropped a bomb. We never fired a bullet. We never went to war'". The Guardian. UK: Guardian News and Media.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  46. Clinton (2005), 76.
  47. Maraniss (1996), 99.
  48. Clinton (2005), 609.
  49. "May 2001". Executive Office of the President of the United States. 2001. Retrieved 24 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  50. Gormley (2000), 113.
  51. Hegstrom, Edward (27 September 1999). "Gore and Bush employ splintered Spanish". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Seattle. Hearst Corporation. Retrieved 27 July 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  52. Obama, Barack (30 November 2011). "President Obama speaks Indonesian, learn at Cinta Bahasa Indonesian Language School – Bali Indonesia". YouTube. Retrieved 30 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>