Mark Maier, GLN Leadership Fellow, extemporizes on the connections between US presidents and language-learning. Read more about how presidents have applied their knowledge of languages to executive and diplomatic leadership in Washington, DC.
With the Democratic presidential debates underway, the US presidential election cycle will soon be in full force. To acknowledge this present moment, we decided to look back on all 44 men who have served as Commander-in-Chief, and examine their linguistic abilities. (To clarify, yes, we do mean 44. Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms, thus making him both our 22nd and 24th President).
According to the Huffington Post, there have been 21 US Presidents who have been multilingual. At just below 50%, that’s substantially more than the US population, of whom only about 20% of people are multilingual, according to a 2017 report by Michigan State University. At first glance, it would seem that multilingualism is a major asset for Americans who aspire to become Commander in Chief.
But which Presidents were multilingual? Was it the good ones? In some cases, yes. For instance, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson–two of the four Presidents immortalized on Mount Rushmore–knew three and five languages other than English, respectively. Another President widely considered one of the best, Franklin D. Roosevelt (Theodore’s cousin) also knew two languages other than English.
Yet at the same time, several widely derided Presidents, such as John Tyler, James Buchanan, and Herbert Hoover, were multilingual as well.
Similar patterns can be observed among monolingual Presidents. The two most notable monolingual Presidents–and arguably the two most celebrated Presidents–were George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who also make up the other half of Mount Rushmore.
There were also monolingual Presidents often considered to be among the worst, such as Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and Warren Harding.
Some unique Presidents pose question marks. Specifically, both of America’s shortest tenured Presidents–William Henry Harrison and James Garfield–were multilingual. President Harrison was fluent in Latin, and could hold conversations in French. As the Founding Fathers died off, and our young country was still forging its identity, could his knowledge of these languages have proven beneficial in, say, diplomatic negotiations with Europe? Unfortunately, we’ll never know, as Harrison died only one month after taking office.
On the other hand, President Garfield knew three languages outside of English. In fact, he even had the ability to write in Greek with one hand, while simultaneously writing in Latin with the other. Could this ability to multitask also be demonstrated when working to implement his presidential agenda, which included comprehensive measures to reduce government corruption, and increase civil rights for African Americans? Once again, we’ll never know, as Garfield was tragically shot only four months after taking office, and died two months later.
Perhaps more interesting than the linguistic abilities of individual US Presidents is the patterns of multilingualism amongst US Presidents. Of the first 11 US Presidents, all but two–George Washington and Andrew Jackson–were multilingual. Then of the next 11, only four were. Interestingly, three of those four men –Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Chester Arthur–served consecutively, as the 19th, 20th, and 21st Presidents, respectively.
For both of the remaining two sets of 11 Presidents, the number of multilingual ones has held steady at four. Among this group of US Presidents, there is another instance of three consecutive multilingual Presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama), as well as an instance of back-to-back multilingual Presidents (Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt).
How did multilingual Presidents come to learn their languages? There were many reasons. For some, it was a necessity. One example would be John Quincy Adams, who became fluent in French while spending seven years of his youth studying there. He also learned to speak four other non-English languages, which might partially explain his long and successful career as a diplomat.
Other US Presidents learned languages in school, and gradually honed their language skills while traveling abroad. This was the case for the aforementioned Thomas Jefferson, who, as mentioned previously, became fluent in five non-English languages throughout his lifetime.
Yet other Presidents were born into their languages. This was especially the situation Martin Van Buren found himself in, as he learned English as a second language (with his first being Dutch).
What conclusions can be drawn from the data we have examined? Since the Office of the President of the United States is so exclusive, having been filled by 44 men–all but one of them white–the sample size alone may not allow for substantive conclusions. Additionally, with individuals in both the multilingual and monolingual camps of Presidents varying so immensely in abilities, success, prestige, and lasting relevance, conclusions become even harder to draw. However, even if being multilingual won’t automatically increase the odds that you’ll one day become a resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the fact remains that being President has hitherto been a sign that one is more likely to be multilingual.
If you end up being one of the lucky few to hold this immersive office, hopefully you can be a part of the even more elite group of Presidents that also know another language. If this goal inspires you, your journey can’t begin soon enough. We hope you will include us in your journey, and take one of our many language classes!
Please learn how to enroll in our classes at the following link: https://thegln.org/learn/learn-with-gln/. We look forward to teaching any and all aspiring future Presidents!