The languages spoken in the White House.

February 15, 2016 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This Monday the United States 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.  Currently the United States is in the middle of a presidential political campaign and only two of all major candidates, Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, and former Governor Jeb Bush, also from the same state, are fluent in a second language: Spanish.

George Washington did not speak any other language. No doubt because of his very little formal education and humble beginnings he just spoke English.  Abraham Lincoln would fit the same bill. The emancipator was a self-educated attorney with a very modest upbringing and he never learned any foreign languages either. These two American heroes did not travel abroad in their lifetime.

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. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State under Washington, and our third President spoke English, French, Italian, Latin, and he could read Greek, and Spanish.  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.

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.

All in all, 21 of America’s 44 Presidents have known at least a second language, and if you consider that America’s first Nobel Peace Prize recipient: President Teddy Roosevelt spoke French and German,  then we can say that two out of four Presidents sculpted on Mount Rushmore spoke a foreign language. I now invite you to share with the rest of us any story you may know about the foreign languages spoken by a President or First Lady of the United States.

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§ 11 Responses to The languages spoken in the White House.

  • Not true, Cruz also speaks fluent Spanish.

  • According to the TV anchor on Univision, I don’t remember his name now, smallish, handsome guy who speaks excellent English but with an atrocious Spanish accent, George W. Bush only thought that he spoke Spanish, but he did not really speak Spanish. Proximity to a border generally does not make one automatically learn a foreign language.

  • Hartmut says:

    Mrs Coolidge did not know American Sign Language. She taught at a private school for the deaf in Western Massachusetts. The school Clarke School for the Deaf is purely oral, that is, any signing or gesture that hearing people always use are forbidden. Teachers are held strictly to speaking a bit slowly with enhanced mouth movements to deaf pupils, hands held behind their backs to prevent them from accidentally making gestures. Even fingerspelling is forbidden. Pupils caught making a gesture, even pointing, are hit on their hands with a rod.

    In the Deaf lore, Mrs Coolidge is not mentioned knowing to sign as compared to some congressmen and senators who grow with deaf parents or siblings, a most recent one is Tom Harkin, father of ADA.

  • Hartmut says:

    Of foreign heads of state or royalty, only Queen Sophie of Sweden is known to be pretty good in Swedish Sign Language. A PM of Ireland whose name I could not retrieve is a child of deaf parents and is fluent in Irish Sign Language.

  • Yury Jakymec says:

    Congratulations for this good article. Now that you invite other people to share their knowledge about head of states of other countries, I will start with Latin America, where I lived most of the time. To have Head of states in Latin America who are polyglots is very rare. In most of the countries there are mostlly monolingual politicians, Some other countries have politicians who were educated in the US and in Europe and can speak English and Spanish, However there are exceptions. In Brazil, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who ruled from 1995 to 2003 can speak Portuguese, English and Spanish Fluently. I saw interviews he gave in Spanish and English. It is also claimed that he also speaks French very well, His Wife Ruth Cardoso (RIP) who was the First Lady of the country studied in France and the US. She spoke English and French Very well beside her Native Portuguese. In Peru, They had the case of President Alberto Fujimori, son of Japanese immigrants and he can speak very well Spanish, English and Japanese. also in Peru, President Alejandro Toledo who ruled Peru from 2001to 2006 had a good level of English, but his wife and First Lady Eliane Karp, Born in France, can speak French, English, Spanish, Hebrew, Quechua, Dutch and Portuguese. In Venezuela, Past President Rafael Caldera (RIP) Could speak very Well Spanish, English, Italian and could understand Latin. I finish those lines with another Latin American Head of State, but in this case he rules the State of Vatican, Pope Francis, who is fluent in Spanish, Italian, Latin and German, and has a good level in English and French. . . .

  • Francois Remaire says:

    T. 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.[29]

    Eleanor Roosevelt could understand dutch if slow spoken.

    Note. Roosevelt’s came from New Amsterdam 17th center before name changed to New York

  • […] and also mark the first First Lady who was fluent in more than two languages. Before Melania, The Professional Interpreter reports that First Lady Lou Hoover spoke English and Mandarin Chinese, Jacqueline Kennedy spoke French […]

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