List of multilingual presidents of the United States

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Thomas Jefferson claimed to read and write 6 different languages.

Of the 45[a] persons 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 Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson demonstrating proficiency in a number of foreign languages.

James A. Garfield and his successor Chester A. Arthur knew Ancient Greek and Latin, but it was Garfield's ambidexterity 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. As for Asian languages, James Madison studied Hebrew, Herbert Hoover spoke some Mandarin Chinese, while Barack Obama speaks Indonesian at a proficient level.

18th century[edit]

John Adams[edit]

John 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 during the Revolutionary War, Adams became fluent in French.[3]

19th century[edit]

Thomas Jefferson[edit]

Thomas Jefferson spoke and read multiple languages, which included French. According to notes he made while traveling in 1788, he was able to speak French, Latin, and Italian.[4] He claimed to be able to read, as of 1817, these languages along with Greek and Spanish.[4] He also studied and wrote about the Anglo-Saxon language (Old English)[5] and studied German to some extent.[4] 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, possibly including Arabic, Irish, and Welsh.[4] His proficiency in these languages is not known.[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."[6]

James Madison[edit]

James Madison began his studies of Latin at the age of twelve[7] and had mastered Greek, Latin, Italian, and French (the last reportedly with a Scottish accent) by the time he entered the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University.[8] He produced many translations of Latin orations of Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel.[7] He also studied Horace and Ovid.[7] He learned Greek as an admissions requirement for higher college learning.[7]

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.[9]

James Monroe[edit]

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.[10]

John Quincy Adams[edit]

John Quincy Adams went to school in both France and the Netherlands, and spoke fluent French and conversational Dutch.[11] 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.[12] 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.[12] When his father appointed him United States Ambassador to Prussia, Adams dedicated himself to becoming proficient in German in order to have the tools to strengthen relations between the two countries.[13] He improved his skills by translating articles from German to English, and his studies made his diplomatic efforts more successful.[13]

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, as well as Russian, but never achieved fluency.[12] Adams also read Latin very well, translated a page a day of Latin text,[14] and studied classical Greek in his spare time.[15]

Martin Van Buren[edit]

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.[16] 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.[17]

William Henry Harrison[edit]

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. While there, he also learned a small amount of French.[18]

John Tyler[edit]

John Tyler excelled at school, where he learned both Latin and Greek.[19]

James K. Polk[edit]

Although James K. Polk had no background in foreign languages upon entering college, he proved a quick learner.[20] 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.[21]

James Buchanan[edit]

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.[22]

Rutherford B. Hayes[edit]

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.[23]

James A. Garfield[edit]

James A. Garfield knew and taught both Latin and Greek, and he was the first president to campaign in two languages (English and German).[24] 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.[25]

Chester A. Arthur[edit]

Chester A. Arthur was known to be comfortable enough in Latin and Greek to converse with other men who knew the languages.[26]

20th century[edit]

Theodore Roosevelt[edit]

A foreign correspondent noted that although Roosevelt spoke clearly and quickly, he had a German accent while speaking in French.[27] He read both German and French very well and kept a good number of books written in these languages in his personal library.[28] He quite often read fiction, philosophy, religion, and history books in both French and German.[29] He was most comfortable with informal discussions in French, but he made two public addresses in the West Indies in French in 1916.[29] 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.[29]

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.[29] While not fluent in the language, Roosevelt was also able to read Italian.[30] Though he at one point studied Greek and Latin, Roosevelt found both languages a "dreary labor" to translate.[31]

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.[32]

Woodrow Wilson[edit]

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.[33]

Herbert Hoover[edit]

Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Hoover, once translated a book from Latin to English.[34] The pair took five years, and sacrificed much of their spare time, to translating the Latin mining tract De re metallica.[35] 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.[35] For years, five nights of the week were spent translating the book, including naming objects that the author had merely described.[35] The Hoovers also spoke some Mandarin Chinese, having lived in China from April 1899 until August 1900.[36] Lou Hoover studied the language daily in China but Herbert Hoover confessed that he "never absorbed more than a hundred words."[37] Still, the two would converse in their limited Mandarin when they wanted to keep their conversations private from guests or the press.[38]

Franklin D. Roosevelt[edit]

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 governesses from France and Germany who taught him their respective languages. A Swiss governess, Jeanne Sandoz, furthered his studies in both languages,[39] particularly stressing French.[40] Roosevelt spent one summer of his schooling in Germany;[41] 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.[42] Though he never had a mastery of the language, his governesses also taught him a limited amount of Latin.[43] Roosevelt gave a bilingual speech (in English and French) during a 1936 visit to Quebec City.[44]

Jimmy Carter[edit]

Jimmy Carter has a functional command of Spanish, but has never been grammatically perfect.[45] Carter studied the language at the United States Naval Academy[46] and continued his studies while an officer of the United States Navy.[47] 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.[48] Carter has written and given a number of addresses in the Spanish language[49] and sometimes spoke to constituents in Spanish.[47] To practice his Spanish, he and his wife Rosalynn read the Bible in Spanish to each other every night.[50]

Bill Clinton[edit]

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".[51] He is able to hold casual conversation in the language.[52] In 1994, while giving a lengthy speech in English at the Brandenburg Gate, he said one sentence in German, pledging to his audience that "Amerika steht an Ihrer Seite jetzt und für immer" ("America stands on your side, now and forever").[53][54]

21st century[edit]

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.[55]

George W. Bush[edit]

George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and has delivered speeches in the language.[56] His speeches in Spanish have had English interspersed throughout.[57] During his first campaign for the presidency in 2000, some news outlets reported that he was fluent in the language, though a campaign spokeswoman and others described him as having conversational proficiency rather than being "completely fluent."[58]

Barack Obama[edit]

From the age of six through ten (1967–1971), Barack Obama lived in Jakarta, Indonesia and attended local Indonesian-language schools. He reportedly was able to exchange greetings and "pleasantries" in "fluent Indonesian" with Indonesia's then-president and others.[59][60] During a White House interview with an Indonesian journalist, he remarked that he "used to be fluent" in Indonesian but that he had not been able to use it much as an adult.[61] During his 2008 presidential campaign, while promoting foreign-language education in the United States, Obama said, "I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing!"[62]


President Dutch French German Ancient Greek Italian Latin Spanish Other languages
2 John Adams Fluent Fluent
3 Thomas Jefferson Fluent Reading only Fluent Fluent Reading only Partial – several, including Old English
4 James Madison Fluent Fluent Fluent Fluent Fluent – Hebrew
5 James Monroe Fluent
6 John Quincy Adams Partial Fluent Fluent Partial Partial Fluent Partial Partial – Russian
8 Martin Van Buren Native Partial Fluent – English (second language)
9 William Henry Harrison Partial Fluent
10 John Tyler Fluent Fluent
11 James K. Polk Fluent Fluent
15 James Buchanan Fluent Fluent
19 Rutherford B. Hayes Fluent Fluent
20 James A. Garfield Fluent Fluent
21 Chester A. Arthur Fluent Fluent
26 Theodore Roosevelt Partial Fluent Fluent Partial
28 Woodrow Wilson Fluent
31 Herbert Hoover Fluent Partial – Mandarin Chinese
32 Franklin D. Roosevelt Fluent Fluent Partial
39 Jimmy Carter Partial
42 Bill Clinton Partial
43 George W. Bush Partial
44 Barack Obama Partial – Indonesian


Graph illustrating the languages spoken by U.S. Presidents and indicating their proficiency levels, whether fluent or partial.


  1. ^ As of 2021. By the conventional numbering of U.S. presidents, there have been 46 presidents but only 45 individuals who have held the office, because Grover Cleveland, the only one to serve non-consecutive terms, is counted twice (as the 22nd and 24th president).


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  2. ^ McLeod (1976), 23.
  3. ^ McCullough (2001), 321.
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  15. ^ Adams (1874), 380.
  16. ^ Widmer (2005), ii.
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  18. ^ Owens (2007), 14.
  19. ^ May and Wilentz (2008), 13.
  20. ^ Mayo (2006), 11.
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  22. ^ Baker (2004), 12.
  23. ^ Trefousse (2002), 5.
  24. ^ "James Abram Garfield". Retrieved 21 July 2017.
  25. ^ "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.
  26. ^ Reeves (1975), 21.
  27. ^ New York Times (1909), 2. 25 November 2023
  28. ^ New York Times (1898), IMS10. 25 November 2023
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  32. ^ Undated letter to Nelly Bodenhem, copy in the possession of Pieter J. Dijkstra, the Netherlands.
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  35. ^ a b c Lewiston Evening News (1933), 5.
  36. ^ "Herbert Hoover and China". World Association for International Studies. 21 November 2001. Retrieved 13 January 2018. The Hoovers arrived in China in April 1899 and lived through the siege of Tienjin. Being an engineer, Mr. Hoover and his detail were responsibie for maintaining the battleworks; Mrs. Hoover worked as a nurse. Although both Hoovers knew how to fire a gun, there is no evidence that they ever shot at the boxers. They left China in August 1900".
  37. ^ Hoover, Herbert (1951). Memoirs, vol. 1. New York: Macmillan. p. 36. ISBN 9781258120832.
  38. ^ King, David (2009), Herbert Hoover, Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish, ISBN 978-0-7614-3626-3
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  40. ^ Coker (2005), 4.
  41. ^ Harper (1996), 17.
  42. ^ Coker (2005), 6.
  43. ^ Freedman (1992), 9.
  44. ^ 96 - Address in Quebec, Canada
  45. ^ Poser, Bill (8 July 2007). "The Linguistic Ability of the Presidential Candidates". Language Log. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 22 March 2010.
  46. ^ Carter (2004), 35.
  47. ^ a b Associated Press (1976), 46.
  48. ^ McBride (1978), 1.
  49. ^ The Washington Post (2002), 2.
  50. ^ 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.
  51. ^ Clinton (2005), 76.
  52. ^ Maraniss (1996), 99.
  53. ^ Clinton (2005), 609.
  54. ^ "President Clinton's Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin". @clintonlibrary42. William J. Clinton Presidential Library. 1994. Retrieved 30 March 2023.
  55. ^ "May 2001". Executive Office of the President of the United States. 2001. Retrieved 24 March 2010.
  56. ^ Gormley (2000), 113.
  57. ^ Hegstrom, Edward (27 September 1999). "Gore and Bush employ splintered Spanish". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved 27 July 2010.
  58. ^ "Mr. Bush's Spanish Fluency". Retrieved 2020-08-06.
  59. ^ "Language Log » Obama's Indonesian redux". Retrieved 2019-11-22.
  60. ^ "Language Log » Obama's Indonesian pleasantries: the video". Retrieved 2019-11-22.
  61. ^ Wawancara Eksklusif RCTI dengan Barack Obama [Part 2], archived from the original on 2021-12-15, retrieved 2019-11-22 (at 0:38)
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