The U.S. Presidents and First Ladies who spoke a foreign language.

February 12, 2015 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

In a few days Americans will observe Presidents Day, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about those American Presidents, and their spouses, who spoke more than one language. It is common knowledge around the world that many Americans do not speak a foreign language, yet, almost half of the forty four men who have been President of the United States spoke, or at least had some knowledge of a language other than English.

Much of what we know about Presidents’ and First Ladies’ fluency in foreign languages came to us through testimonials and documents, and not all of it is undisputed. There is no doubt that Thomas Jefferson spoke fluent French, but his claim that he could speak Spanish seems unlikely. According to a documented conversation he had with John Quincy Adams, Jefferson said that he had learned Spanish in 19 days while sailing from the United States. He probably understood and read some Spanish (He used to say that he had read Don Quixote in Spanish) but that did not make him fluent.

At the beginning of the United States the White House was occupied by many intelligent men who enjoyed reading and learning. In those days many intellectuals learned to read in foreign languages in order to have access to certain scientific and literary works. This probably was the level of expertise that many of the Presidents had. Thomas Jefferson spoke French, and he could read and perhaps write and speak some Greek, Latin, Italian and Spanish.

President John Adams lived in France and became fluent in French. He could also read and write some Latin. His son, President John Quincy Adams spoke French very well, and had a decent Dutch as he went to school in The Netherlands and his wife spoke it. As an adult he learned some German when he was Ambassador to Prussia, and he also read and wrote some Greek and Latin. President James Madison also wrote and read in Greek and Latin, and his Hebrew was fairly decent.

President James Monroe and his entire family spoke excellent French, and it was common to hear the entire family having their conversations in French. President Van Buren was born in New York, but his first language was Dutch. He learned English later in life as part of his education. He also learned some Latin when he was studying English. Presidents Tyler, Harrison, Polk, Buchanan, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur knew how to read and write Latin, Greek, or both.

Despite having a “German-like” accent, President Theodore Roosevelt had an almost fluent French (He confessed that verb conjugation and gender were not his strong points) and he spoke some German. President Woodrow Wilson learned German in college but was never fluent. On the other hand, President and Mrs. Hoover were fluent in Mandarin Chinese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German and French. He also studied some Latin.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton speak some Spanish and German respectively, but neither one of them can be considered as fluent. President George W. Bush speaks some Spanish and because of his years in Texas, next to the Mexican border, he understands even more. As far as President Obama, it has been said that he has a little understanding of Bahasa Indonesia.

There are a few First Ladies who could speak a foreign language. The first one that comes to mind is Elizabeth Monroe, spouse of James Monroe who spoke French with fluency. John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa, was the only First Lady born in a foreign country (England). She spoke good Dutch.   Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, worked as a teacher of deaf students, and was the first lady who knew American Sign Language).

Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Hoover, was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University with a geology degree. She also spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently. Jacqueline Kennedy lived in France and spoke very good French. She also knew some Spanish. Finally, Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife, spoke some functional Spanish.

Now you know, or perhaps confirmed or debunked a prior understanding about the foreign languages spoken by America’s First Families. I understand that this post is probably too generous about the proficiency level of some of our Presidents and First Ladies, and when we compare them to the extensive knowledge of foreign languages that other Presidents and Heads of State have, we are probably far from the top of the list; however, some of our First Families were really fluent and we should acknowledge them here. I now invite you to post your comments about the foreign language knowledge of our American Presidents and First Ladies, and I ask you to share the names and languages fluently spoken by Presidents and Heads of State from other countries.

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§ 5 Responses to The U.S. Presidents and First Ladies who spoke a foreign language.

  • Hartmut says:

    Mrs Coolidge knows no American Sign Language, although she was a teacher of the deaf. She taught at Clarke School for the Deaf in Northhampton, MA, which was an oral school. This school forbids, still does today, deaf students to use their hands to communicate to each other. They have to do this furtively, like in restrooms. Students caught using a primitive sign language, were hit with a rod or harsch brush on their hands. Mrs Coolidge as a teacher participated in this suppressing act.

    Only two US senators can communicate with their hands, though not wholly fluently: Homer Thornberry from Texas and Steve Harkin from Iowa, who would be the first president to use ASL, if he got the DNC nomination.

  • indextran says:

    Very interesting article. I’d never known all that before about presidential language abilities.

  • Jennifer Shih Carson says:

    Thanks for sharing!
    Hoover and his wife learned Mandarin Chinese while he worked in China and used it during his tenure at the White House when they wanted to foil eavesdroppers. It’s also worth noting that Hoover made recommendations to improve the lot of the Chinese worker, including ending the practice of imposing long term servitude contracts.

  • Sue Rhudy says:

    Mary Todd Lincoln was fluent in French…a highly educated First Lady.

  • Marilyn says:

    I think our incoming 1st lady speaks 7 languages.

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