MARCH 15, 2016 BY JILL BISHOP
Commanders and Chiefs of Multiple Languages
Multilingual World Leaders
It’s common knowledge that US Presidents from past centuries are important historical figures, but American citizens may be surprised to learn several of these English-speaking world leaders were also multilingual.
Forefather, Six Languages
In addition to his native tongue of English, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, the country’s second Vice President and third President, was able to read and write in Ancient Greek, Latin, French, Italian—and Spanish which he claimed he learned in 19 days.
Adams Family Values
Diplomat John Quincy Adams, the son of President John Adams and Abigail Adams, served as a US Senator, member of the House of Representatives, and the country’s sixth President. If that’s not impressive enough, he was fluent in English and French and could speak conversational Dutch. He also studied German, Italian, Ancient Greek and translated a page of Latin text everyday! Talk about a multitasking multilinguist.
The Remarkable Roosevelts
The English-speaking statesman, author, explorer, soldier, naturalist, and 26th President Theodore Roosevelt could read and speak in conversational German and French. He also studied Ancient Greek and Latin,read in Italian, and sang in Dutch. Similarly, T.R.’s nephew-in-law Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the country’s longest serving President, spoke English, German and French—all with a New England accent.
It’s All Greek to Me
President Martin Van Buren actually spoke Dutch before he learned English. He also studied Latin like many other Presidents from John Adams and William Henry Harrison, both of whom also knew English and French, to Rutherford B. Hayes who, in addition to speaking, reading and writing in English and French, was well versed in Latin and Greek. US Presidents John Tyler, James K. Polk, James Buchanan, and Chester A. Arthur also spoke English and could read, write and sometimes converse in Latin and Greek, while President James Madison knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew. But perhaps the most impressive of all is the 20th President of the United States, the ambidextrous James A. Garfield who could write in Latin with one hand and Greek in the other—at the same time!
A Batch of Bilinguals
In addition to English, Herbert Hoover was fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Jimmy Carter has a functional command of Spanish, Bill Clintoncan speak conversational German, George W. Bush knows a little Spanish, and Barack Obama can understand some Indonesian. These Presidents are considered bilingual, even George W. since his infamous Bushisms don’t count as third language.