List of multilingual presidents of the United States
Of the 45 men who have served as 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 and Chester A. Arthur knew Ancient Greek and Latin, but it was Garfield's ambidextrous ability that would lead to rumors that he could write both at the same time. Both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke French, and Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German. Herbert Hoover spoke some Mandarin Chinese.
- 1 18th century
- 2 19th century
- 3 20th century
- 4 21st century
- 5 Table
- 6 See also
- 7 References
John Adams, the second president of the United States, learned to read Latin at a young age. In preparation for attending Harvard University, Adams attended a school for improving his Latin skills. While posted in France, Adams became fluent in French.
Thomas Jefferson spoke and read multiple languages, which included French. 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 Italian, Arabic, Irish, Welsh and Dutch. 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".
James Madison began his studies of Latin at the age of twelve 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. He also studied Horace and Ovid. He learned Greek as an admissions requirement for higher college learning.
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams went to school in both France and the Netherlands, and spoke fluent French and conversational Dutch. 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. 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. 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. He improved his skills by translating articles from German to English, and his studies made his diplomatic efforts more successful.
In addition to the two languages he spoke fluently, he also studied Italian, but he admitted to making little progress in it since he had no one with whom to practice speaking and hearing the language. Adams also read Latin very well, translated a page a day of Latin text, and studied classical Greek in his spare time.
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. 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.
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 Latin histories. At the college, he also learned a small amount of French.
James K. Polk
Although James K. Polk had no background in foreign languages upon entering college, he proved a quick learner. 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.
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.
James A. Garfield
James A. Garfield knew and taught both Latin and Greek, and he was the first President to campaign in two languages (English and German). He was also ambidextrous. Stories emerged to the effect that Garfield would entertain 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. However, specifics of these stories are not documented.
Chester A. Arthur
A foreign correspondent noted that although Roosevelt spoke clearly and quickly, he had a German accent while speaking in French. He read both German and French very well and kept a good number of books written in these languages in his personal library. He quite often read fiction, philosophy, religion, and history books in both French and German. He was most comfortable with informal discussions in French, but he made two public addresses in the West Indies in French in 1916. 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.
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. While not fluent in the language, Roosevelt was also able to read Italian. Though he at one point studied Greek and Latin, Roosevelt found both languages a "dreary labor" to translate.
Roosevelt understood some of the Dutch language and taught songs in Dutch to his children and grandchildren, as is documented in a letter in English that he wrote to the painter Nelly Bodenheim in Amsterdam.
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.
Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Hoover, once translated a book from Latin to English. The pair took five years, and sacrificed much of their spare time, to translating the Latin mining tract De re metallica. 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. For years, five nights of the week were spent translating the book, including naming objects that the author had merely described. The Hoovers also spoke Mandarin Chinese, having lived and worked in China in the 1890s and 1900s. Lou Hoover studied the language daily in China but Herbert Hoover confessed that he "never absorbed more than a hundred words." Still, the two would converse in their limited Mandarin when they wanted to keep their conversations private from guests or the press.
Franklin D. 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, particularly stressing French. Roosevelt spent one summer of his schooling in Germany; 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. Though he never had a mastery of the language, his governesses also taught him a limited amount of Latin.
Roosevelt gave a bilingual speech (in English and French) during a 1936 visit to Quebec City. 
Jimmy Carter has a functional command of Spanish, but has never been grammatically perfect. Carter studied the language at the United States Naval Academy and continued his studies while an officer of the United States Navy. Carter sometimes spoke Spanish in 1976 television campaign advertisements, but in his native South Georgia accent.
He could speak fairly fluently, but joked about his sometimes flawed understanding of the language while discoursing with native speakers. Carter has written and given a number of addresses in the Spanish language and sometimes spoke to constituents in Spanish. To practice his Spanish, he and his wife Rosalynn read the Bible in Spanish to each other every night.
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". He is able to hold casual conversation in the language. 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").
George W. Bush
Barack Obama has an elementary understanding of Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia), having lived in Indonesia as a child, and was enrolled at Indonesian language schools from the ages of six to ten. He has used elements of Indonesian language in some of his speeches, such as the 2011 address he gave to the University of Indonesia, when he spoke about 20 seconds in Indonesian.
|6||John Quincy Adams||Partial mastery||Fluent||Fluent||Partial mastery||Fluent|
|8||Martin Van Buren||Native||Partial mastery|
|9||William Henry Harrison||Partial mastery||Fluent|
|11||James K. Polk||Fluent||Fluent|
|19||Rutherford B. Hayes||Fluent||Fluent|
|20||James A. Garfield||Fluent||Fluent|
|21||Chester A. Arthur||Fluent||Fluent|
|26||Theodore Roosevelt||Fluent||Fluent||Partial mastery|
|31||Herbert Hoover||Fluent||Partial Mastery|
|32||Franklin D. Roosevelt||Fluent||Fluent||Partial mastery|
|39||Jimmy Carter||Partial mastery|
|42||Bill Clinton||Partial mastery|
|43||George W. Bush||Partial mastery|
|44||Barack Obama||Partial mastery|
- "Ich bin ein Berliner" – a German phrase famously spoken by John F. Kennedy in a speech in West Berlin
- Crapo (2007), 4.
- McLeod (1976), 23.
- McCullough (2001), 321.
- Berkes, Anna; Bryan Craig (10 December 2008). "Languages Jefferson Spoke or Read". Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Retrieved 22 March 2010.
- Berkes, Anna; Bryan Craig (10 December 2008). "Spanish Language". Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Retrieved 22 March 2010.
- Ketcham (1990), 20.
- Hodge and Nolan (2007), 35.
- Budinger, Meghan. "Our Face to the World: Clothing exhibit unveils lives of James and Elizabeth Monroe". UMW Magazine. Fredericksburg, Virginia: University of Mary Washington. Archived from the original on 27 May 2010. Retrieved 28 April 2010.
- Adams (1874), 229
- Adams (1874), 176.
- "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.
- Adams (1874), 177.
- Adams (1874), 380.
- Widmer (2005), ii.
- Holland (1836), 15.
- Owens (2007), 14.
- May and Wilentz (2008), 13.
- Mayo (2006), 11.
- Behrman (2005), 18.
- Baker (2004), 12.
- Trefousse (2002), 5.
- "James Abram Garfield". Retrieved 21 July 2017.
- "Life Portrait of James Garfield". C-SPAN. 26 July 1999. Retrieved 17 September 2016.
…JAMES GARFIELD COULD WRITE GREEK WITH ONE HAND AND LATIN WITH THE OTHER AT THE SAME TIME. WE KNOW HE WAS A WONDERFUL SCHOLAR. ANY TRUTH TO THAT LONG-HELD RUMOR?... …I'VE HEARD THE STATEMENT BEFORE ABOUT IT. I BELIEVE IT, BUT I'M NOT SURE IT'S TRUE. SHORTLY AFTER HIS DEATH, GARFIELD -- AFTER GARFIELD'S DEATH, ONE OF HIS SONS TRIED TO TRACK THAT LEGEND DOWN BECAUSE HE HAD HEARD IT, BUT HE HAD NEVER SEEN IT HAPPEN. HE WROTE TO LOTS AND LOTS OF PEOPLE, RELATIVES, FRIENDS, FAMILY. NONE OF THEM SUPPORTED IT. IT'S TRUE THAT GARFIELD WAS AMBIDEXTROUS, BUT HE JUST WASN'T THAT AMBIDEXTROUS.
- Reeves (1975), 21.
- New York Times (1909), 2. 19 January 2018
- New York Times (1898), IMS10. 19 January 2018
- Wagenknecht (2008), 39.
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- Wagenknecht (2008), 38.
- Undated letter to Nelly Bodenhem, copy in the possession of Pieter J. Dijkstra, the Netherlands.
- Pestritto (2005), 34.
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- Lewiston Evening News (1933), 5.
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- Harper (1996), 14.
- Coker (2005), 4.
- Harper (1996), 17.
- Coker (2005), 6.
- Freedman (1992), 9.
- 96 - Address in Quebec, Canada
- Poser, Bill (8 July 2007). "The Linguistic Ability of the Presidential Candidates". Language Log. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 22 March 2010.
- Carter (2004), 35.
- Associated Press (1976), 46.
- McBride (1978), 1.
- The Washington Post (2002), 2.
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- Clinton (2005), 76.
- Maraniss (1996), 99.
- Clinton (2005), 609.
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- Gormley (2000), 113.
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- Gavrilovic, Maria (11 July 2008). "Obama: "I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing!"". CBS_News. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
- Obama, Barack (30 November 2011). "President Obama speaks Indonesian, learn at Cinta Bahasa Indonesian Language School – Bali Indonesia". YouTube. Retrieved 30 July 2014.
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