In celebration of President’s Day we wanted to take a closer look at the foreign languages that were often spoken by United States Presidents. In total, 21 U.S. Presidents could speak a foreign language, while some could fluently speak several. For instance, records show that Thomas Jefferson was a man of many languages, speaking French, Greek, Italian, Latin and Spanish.
We looked at 4 foreign languages that were commonly spoken by U.S. Presidents and highlighted the facts, statistics and stories that not only interested us, but also illustrate how each language impacted the role of the presidency.Latin
Unless you’re studying it in a high school classroom you’re likely not to hear Latin, but the ancient language was once held in high regard by some of our country’s earliest leaders. In total, 13 U.S. Presidents could speak Latin, and 6 were among our country’s first 10 presidents. Many of them were well immersed in Latin, and regularly could be heard quoting Roman politicians and philosophers. John Adams in particular would frequently quote Cicero, declaring “Res publica res est populi” (A republic is the people).
Second only to Latin, Greek was spoken by 9 U.S. Presidents. Our country’s founding fathers placed significant value on understanding the lessons behind Greek democracy and they often related them to their own pursuit for equality and independence. Although it’s not quite the same as learning Greek, 18 U.S. Presidents participated in college Greek life. Popular culture today sometimes shows a different image, but throughout the early stages of our country Greek fraternities were known for inspiring young men to seek knowledge and become deep critical thinkers who were committed to serving the public.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd president, was the last U.S. President to speak French. But before him 6 of our presidents could speak the language, five of which held office in the first 100 years of our country’s independence. Several early leaders such as Adams and Jefferson spent time living in France, and at the time French was seen as the international language of diplomacy. A strong dialogue and relationship with France was a key part to our country’s early foreign policy success.
Five U.S. Presidents spoke German, with the first being Theodore Roosevelt. Although he spoke both German and French, one could argue that he was a bit more fluent in German, as it’s been said that when he spoke French you could hear a German accent in his voice. The last and most recent president to speak the language was Bill Clinton, who famously gave a speech in July, 1994 at the Brandenburg Gate, five years after the Berlin Wall came down. Although the majority of his speech was in English, Clinton delivered several powerful lines in German, such as “Amerika steht an ihrer Seite, jetzt und fuer immer” (America is on your side now and forever) and “Nichts wird uns aufhalten. Alles ist moeglich. Berlin ist frei.” (Nothing will stop us. Everything is possible. Berlin is free.)