Multilingual U.S. Presidents and a Few Embarrassing Diplomatic Moments

Trump and Abe

Source: Washington Post. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie Abe, attend dinner with President Trump and first lady Melania Trump at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., in February. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Donald Trump’s Presidency has been mired for months in controversy over reports that the Trump Campaign may have colluded with the Russian Government in an effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Last week the White House was rocked again by information revealing that President Trump had two additional, undisclosed meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit in Germany. In an interview with New York Times journalist, Maggie Haberman, President Trump expressed that during the Summit dinner, the seating arrangement put him next to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s wife, Akie Abe who Trump said, “doesn’t speak English”. As a result of the “language barrier”, President Trump reportedly decided to move to the opposite side of the dining table to sit next to first lady Malania Trump and Putin, where the three conversed until the completion of the dinner. President Trump is not the first American President to find himself in diplomatic hot waters over translation. So, here at Stepes we set out to explore which U.S. Presidents have been multilingual and those embarrassing moments that, at the very least, offer a reprieve from the contentious political atmosphere consuming Washington.

Multilingual Presidents

It might not surprise you to read that nearly half of all U.S. Presidents have spoken more than just English. Indeed, it was customary in the dawn of America’s independence that children were trained in classical languages, including Latin and Greek.

George Washington, America’s first President did not speak a second language but during the days of America’s first Commander-in-Chief, many communities among the thirteen states housed Dutch and French speaking residents. In fact, Washington often had by his side a translator during discussions with representatives of these communities.

Here is a list of U.S. Presidents that spoke more than one language:

Presidency President Dutch French German Greek Hebrew Italian Latin Mandarin Chinese Spanish Indonesian
2 John Adams Fluent Fluent
3 Thomas Jefferson Fluent Fluent Fluent Fluent Fluent
4 James Madison Fluent Fluent Fluent
5 James Monroe Fluent
6 John Quincy Adams Advanced Fluent Fluent Advanced Fluent
8 Martin Van Buren Native Advanced
9 William Henry Harrison Advanced Fluent
10 John Tyler Fluent Fluent
11 James K. Polk Fluent Fluent
15 James Buchanan Fluent Fluent
19 Rutherford B. Hayes Fluent Fluent
20 James A. Garfield Fluent Fluent
21 Chester A. Arthur Fluent Fluent
26 Theodore Roosevelt Fluent Fluent Advanced
28 Woodrow Wilson Fluent
31 Herbert Hoover Fluent Advanced
32 Franklin D. Roosevelt Fluent Fluent Advanced
39 Jimmy Carter Advanced
42 Bill Clinton Advanced
43 George W. Bush Advanced
44 Barack Obama Advanced

2. John Adams learned Latin at a young age and during his time as Commissioner to France and Minister Plenipotentiary from 1778-1780 he became fluent in French, the international language of diplomacy at the time.

3. Thomas Jefferson—perhaps America’s most accomplished multilingual President—spoke a total of six languages with fluency. As legend would have it, Jefferson, who was known for his storytelling, informed John Quincy Adams that he taught himself Spanish in nineteen days while sailing to France, using only a grammar textbook and a copy of Don Quixote.

4. James Madison, architect of the U.S. Constitution was fluent in four languages. It is often noted that Madison would edit Latin and Greek writings while studying. Most notably, America’s fourth president translated Latin and Greek texts and eventually learned Hebrew in college.

5. James Monroe and his family were all fluent speakers of French. Monroe, remembered most for the foreign policy doctrine that bears his Monroename, is often recognized among those founding fathers considered to be Francophiles.

6. John Quincy Adams also spoke six languages but only four of them fluently—what an underachiever. As Ambassador to Prussia, Adams immersed himself in the German language so that he might be more successful in strengthening ties between the three countries.

8. Martin Van Buren is the only sitting U.S. President that did not speak English as his first language. Van Buren was born to a Dutch family in Kinderhook, New York where he would later learn English as a young boy.Van Buren

9. William Henry Harrison, America’s eighth president spent the better part of his college days reading about Roman military history and spoke fluent Latin. He also learned enough French to gain conversational abilities.

10. John Tyler, a lesser known but controversial American president, was fluent in both Latin and Greek. Tyler is best known for his ascendancy to the presidency after William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia in April of 1841 and his subsequent support for the confederate government during the American Civil War.

11. James K. Polk, eleventh President of the United States, actually knew no other language other than English until his time in college where he learned both Greek and Latin—asked to give the commencement address upon graduating from North Carolina, Polk delivered it in Latin.

15, James Buchanan was also classically trained in Greek and Latin, and the only president from the state of Pennsylvania.Tyler

19, Rutherford B. Hayes, an attorney from Ohio and the nineteenth president, studied Latin and Greek at college.

Garfield20. James A. Garfield is another Greek and Latin speaker who taught both languages. Legend has it that as an ambidextrous, Garfield would take questions from a crowd and write his responses simultaneously in both Greek and Latin in the opposite hand.

21. Chester A. Arthur is said to have also been proficient enough in Greek and Latin to have conversations in the classical languages.

26. Theodore Roosevelt, the conservationist and political lion who broke up the nation’s largest banks, spoke French, German and Italian.

28. Woodrow Wilson, America’s twenty-eighth president and the engineer of the League of Nations spoke German.

Hoover31. Herbert Hoover spoke both Latin and Mandarin Chinese, having lived in China during the 1890’s and 1900’s. As President of Stanford University, The Hoover Institute also houses some of the world’s largest archival records on U.S.-China relations, including the writings of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Soong Mei Ling.

32, Franklin D. Roosevelt, often cited by historians as America’s greatest president spoke German, French, and had a familiarity of Latin. He learned German and French from governesses while studying abroad.

39, Jimmy Carter, America’s thirty-ninth president learned how to speak Spanish in the U.S. Naval Academy. During his 1976 campaign, Carter was seen in television commercials speaking Spanish in his native South Georgia accent.Carter

42. Bill Clinton, forty-second President of the United States spoke conversational German. On June 12, 1994, President Clinton gave a speech in front of 50,000 German citizens at the Brandenburg Gate, promising that “Amerika steht an Ihrer Seite jetzt und für immer“, “America stands on your side, now and forever”.

43. George W. Bush peppered some of his speeches with Spanish. He was the first American president to deliver weekly radio addresses in both English and Spanish.


44. Barack Obama, forty-fourth President of the United States once commented: “I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!” However, 44 did in fact speak conversational Indonesian, or Bahasa Indonesia the official language of Indonesia.