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December 13, 2011 / ABC Translation Services

Foreign Language and the Presidency

It may not be necessary for American presidents to speak a foreign language – but a surprising number of the early presidents did.

An entertaining blog post from the Foreign Policy magazine website suggests that foreign language ability isn’t really necessary for American presidents, even in today’s highly globalized context.

“George W. Bush’s relatively decent Spanish didn’t really win him many friends in Latin America, nor did Condoleezza Rice’s knowledge of Russian really seem to do much for the administration’s dealings with the Kremlin,” writes Joshua Keating in “Should the president be able to speak foreign languages?”

Keating’s musings led him to a fascinating Wikipedia entry on a subject that I have never given much thought to: multilingual presidents.

It is most interesting to note that relatively few modern presidents have spoken a foreign language; the most linguistically-oriented presidents were the early ones.

John Adams was proficient in ancient languages, and carried out translations in Latin and Greek. He also spoke fluent French.

Thomas Jefferson “claimed to” read and write Greek, Latin, Spanish, French and Italian – although John Quincy Adams “expressed scepticism, noting Jefferson’s tendency to tell ‘large stories.’”

At least ten 18th and 19th century presidents mastered Latin and Greek, showing the academic importance that those ancient languages held at the time. Five of them were French-speakers, but only one – Jefferson – spoke (at least supposedly) Spanish.

A chart at the end of the entry sums up the foreign language abilities of all the presidents – all the presidents who had any, that is – and clearly shows a much higher presence of language mastery among the pre-20th century chief executives.

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