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Hail to the Jefe: Celebrating Polyglot Presidents

By Alison at Accredited Language
Posted on Friday, February 18, 2011
Category: History, History, Holidays, Languages, Languages

White House south facade

Image by UpstateNYer

In Kazakhstan, presidential candidates are required to pass a strict Kazakh language test to ensure their mastery of the language. A report that the requirements for passing the test may be made even more stringent — no more than one error allowed — got us thinking: how many would-be American presidential candidates could pass such a test in English — or in any foreign language?

The US may be trying to ramp up its foreign language education, but how are the foreign language skills of the country’s leaders? This Presidents Day, celebrate the US presidents who undertook the daunting task of learning another language — and succeeded.

Thomas Jefferson

The founder of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was a learned man who believed in the merits of education for both himself and others. Jefferson studied multiple languages, including French, Latin, Spanish and some local Native American dialects. After completing his formal education at the College of William and Mary, he continued the study of languages on his own. He improved his French during the time he spent as the US Minister to France, from 1785 to 1789.

James Monroe

Like Jefferson, James Monroe also attended the College of William and Mary, where he was instructed in languages considered essential to a gentleman’s knowledge at the time, including Latin and Greek. Monroe also spent time abroad on diplomatic missions to France, where he perfected his French, as did his family, who joined him. His wife, Elizabeth Monroe, especially proved her abilities in the French language, gaining popularity at the French court and earning the nickname “la belle Américaine” from Napoleon himself.

John Quincy Adams

You may recognize John Quincy Adams from our previous post on presidential language facts, but a linguistic all-star of his stature has more than earned his place on both lists. Before he entered college, he was fluent in Russian, French and Dutch, thanks to extensive travels with his presidential father, including diplomatic assignments in France, Russia and the Netherlands. He went on to learn Spanish, Italian, German, Greek and Latin as well, making him the president with the most extensive language knowledge to date.

Martin Van Buren

Born in the Dutch-settled town of Kinderhook, New York, Martin Van Buren is the only president in US history whose native language was not English. As a result of his Dutch descent, Van Buren grew up speaking Dutch while learning English as a second language. He studied formally at the Kinderhook Academy, but was largely self-taught.

Herbert Hoover

Future presidents interested in improving their stance on the global political stage may want to follow in the footsteps of Herbert Hoover, who learned Mandarin Chinese. Born in Iowa and educated in the United States, Hoover did not learn the language until later in life, while working as an engineer in China. Hoover’s wife, Lou Henry, learned the language as well and, after Hoover entered the White House, the two would supposedly speak to one another in Mandarin when they wanted to foil eavesdroppers.

Barack Obama

Despite his multicultural background, the current US president’s foreign language skills are minimal. Obama himself acknowledged his lack of linguistic expertise during a town hall meeting in Dayton, Ohio, while on the 2008 campaign trail: “I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!” he told meeting attendees, according to a CBS News report.

However, the current president isn’t at a complete loss for foreign language words. He speaks conversational Bahasa Indonesia, and has delighted Indonesian crowds with his use of Indonesian phrases in speeches given while visiting that country. Like many other US politicians, Obama is also reportedly making an attempt to learn Spanish, a language of increasing importance in the US.

One Response to “Hail to the Jefe: Celebrating Polyglot Presidents”

  1. Paul Says:

    I think that John Quincy Adams is one of the most underrated Presidents in American history. It’s incredible that at a time when people rarely left their own state in their lifetime, John Quincy Adams visited more places than most people do even in the age of airplanes.

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