Blogs > HNN > Presidents who spoke foreign languages

Sep 6, 2007 2:05 pm

Presidents who spoke foreign languages

Over at Language Log Bill Poser lists the foreign language abilities of the presidential candidates, for which we should all be grateful. The key finding: Some of the candidates have passing familiarity with Spanish, a few have let on that they know French, and Obama knows Indonesian.

But he mistakenly insists that aside from Jimmy Carter, who speaks Spanish, no other recent president can speak a foreign language. (George W. Bush's Spanish is said to be inadequate.) Actually, Bush's father is fluent in French and spoke with foreign leaders in French. FDR was fluent in both German and French. As a boy he wrote his mother letters in German.

JFK famously had trouble even memorizing a few words in German. On the flight over to Europe to give his Berlin speech he repeated the phrase Ich bin ein Berliner over and over and still had trouble remembering the pronunciation. (His wife jackie was fluent in French, of course.)

Woodrow Wilson of course was fluent in German (as a PhD in history he had to learn German). James Garfield taught the classics and was said to be able to write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other simultaneously.

Going back earlier takes you to Jefferson (French), Martin Van Buren (Dutch, as Bill Poser correctly notes), John Quincy Adams (7 languages, according to Wilentz, including French, and German).

And just to finish this off on a light note: You can always include Andrew Jackson, who when awarded a Harvard honorary degree was said to have replied:"E pluribus unum, my friends, sine qua non." He didn't. His enemies used the story to discredit him while his friends boasted that the phrase aptly summed up his philosophy, Our federal union, it must be preserved!

(Note: My list is incomplete. I suspect with a little research it would include many more names.)


Add TR to the list.

Received this from Lewis Gould:"TR recited poetry in French and German. 'German prose never became really easy to me in the sense that French prose did, but for German poetry I care as much as for English poetry.' TR Autobiography, Scribner's edition, 1926, p. 23."

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George Robert Gaston - 8/13/2007

I have seen GW Bush give political speeches in Spanish. I'll grant it was in what I would call a border dialect which a number of people use in south Texas. However, a Spanish language speech was something none of the other gringo politicos were doing at the time. His accent and grammar may be bad, but he beat Ann Richards with it.

Then, no one made fun of John Kerry when he made his Spanish language speech. I suppose Spanish accent and grammer could only be approved if Molly Ivins approved. Msunderestimated again.

Tim Lacy - 8/1/2007

Could it be that some of the more conservative candidates might decline knowledge of other languages on their "English First!" principles? Hah! - TL