Languages that Presidents Spoke



Here's a page on languages that American presidents knew or spoke or had some sort of experience with sometime in their lives. I should note that there is little on this in presidential biographies.

I've gotten this information from disparate sources, but mostly from Wikipedia, a discussion at Historum, a New York Times opinion piece from Harry Mount, a brief article from Memoria Press, and (especially concerning Obama and Clinton) The Volokh Conspiracy. Another source I thought of was presidential biographies written for children, and I have found a little information there. Kids like to know what presidents studied in school.

There is now a wiki on the languages that president could speak. I don't think this existed when I started this page—or else I wouldn't have started this page. So, maybe I had the idea first? But it's good there is one now. What I have below is mainly based on secondary sources and anecdotes. And I freely admit it.

What originally got me thinking about this was the wiki on the Choctaw language. Apparently, Andrew Jackson could speak it. Also, the election of Barack Obama made things interesting with his connections to Indonesian. By the way, what must make classics teachers happy to know is that all but about ten(!) studied some Latin. But I haven't found the list of presidents who actually studied Latin!


Language(s)Notes
George Washington (1789-97)None?George's father Augustine died when George was only 11. This may have had the effect of denying him an education abroad like other sons of the Virginia gentry. He did receive an eduction in Virginia until about age 15. Normally, someone in his social standing would have learned Greek and Latin.
John Adams (1789-1801)Latin, GreekHe enjoyed Latin very much. He even taught Latin and Greek.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-09)Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian; some Native American languages?He learned Latin, Greek, and French when being privately tutored, as did other boys of his social class. He would have been quite fluent in French later in life as American ambassador to France. He used so much Greek in his letters to John Adams at one point that Adams told him to stop. Adams liked Latin more than Greek. Monticello is Italian for 'little mountain'. It seems he compiled vocabulary lists of Native American languages.
James Madison (1809-17)Latin, GreekMadison would have been required to know these languages for his application to Princeton.
James Monroe (1817-25)Latin; Greek?His favorite subject was Latin according to a biography. Any Greek? Well, probably, but I haven't actually found anything.
John Quincy Adams (1825-29)Greek, Latin, French, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Italian, GermanHe worked as a French translator at age 14 for the U.S. ambassador to Russia in Russia. I think he has the record for presidential language learning.
Andrew Jackson (1829-37)Choctaw, not LatinThere is a story that he said he only knew one phrase in Latin - e pluribus unum. It's not clear how much Choctaw he knew. I'm of the opinion that, since Choctaw was something of a lingua franca of the South, what he knew was perhaps a "stripped down" version of it and not what native speakers spoke. But it's interesting anyway and the reason for this page!
Martin Van Buren (1837-41)Dutch; Jersey Dutch?Martin Van Buren is the only president whose first language was not English. It was Dutch. It's hard to say how this differed from Standard Dutch. A form of Dutch (Jersey Dutch) was spoken up to the early 20th century in, not surprisingly, New Jersey.
William Henry Harrison (1841)Latin, French, ChoctawHarrison's wiki says he was good at Latin and had some basic French. There is no mention of Choctaw or Greek. But, according to the Choctaw wiki, Harrison was a speaker.
John Tyler (1841-45)Latin, GreekDespite being a basket case physically, he excelled academically. Latin and Greek were part of his education.
James K. Polk (1845-49)Latin; Greek?He taught himself when young, but did well at the University of North Carolina. He gave the welcoming speech (at the commencement ceremony?) in Latin. One source says he "studied the classics" so I assume he had some Greek.
Zachary Taylor (1849-50)not SpanishIt is said that during the Mexican War he loathed it when any Mexican addressed him in Spanish. He only learned one Spanish word, vamos. He had little formal education and didn't seem to do well in what education he had.
Millard Fillmore (1850-53)None?Fillmore had little formal education, though he was eventually admitted to the bar and taught school briefly.
Franklin Pierce (1853-57)
James Buchanan (1857-61)
Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)None?Though he admired the classics, this autodidact did not think to teach himself a foreign language, it seems. At the point that Lincoln was growing up, an education in the classics was starting to be less important. Irony of ironies, John Wilkes Booth is said to have yelled sic semper tyrannus after shooting him. Son Robert Todd Lincoln learned Latin and Greek and attended Harvard.
Andrew Johnson (1865-69)NoneJohnson had no formal education. He taught himself to read and write. His wife Eliza helped tutor him some when they were first married. But I can't imagine that any foreign language would have been included in these tutorials.
Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77)
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81)Latin, GreekAn uncle tutored him in Latin and Greek.
James A. Garfield (1881)Latin, GreekGarfield taught Latin and Greek at Hiram College. It is said someone could ask him a question in English and he could write the answer in Latin with one hand and Greek in the other simultaneously.
Chester Arthur (1881-85)Latin, GreekHe "studied the traditional classics" according to his wiki. And he was tutored by his father in Greek and Latin.
Grover Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97)
Benjamin Harrison (1889-93)
William McKinley (1997-1901)Latin, GreekHe is said to have loved Latin and Greek.
Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09)French, German, Latin, GreekHe was tutored at home. He did well at German and French, but his Latin and Greek were poor.
William Howard Taft (1909-13)
Woodrow Wilson (1913-21)Latin, GreekHe didn't have much formal schooling when young but he had some Latin and Greek when in high school.
Warren G. Harding (1921-23)
Calvin Coolidge (1923-29)
Herbert Hoover (1929-33)Chinese (Mandarin)Herb and First Lady Lou liked to speak to one another in Chinese so that their conversations could be private. She may have been stronger in it than he was. Given his upbringing in the Midwest, he may have had some exposure to Latin or German in high school.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45)German, FrenchHis wiki says he was conversant in these two languages. Eleanor could speak French fluently.
Harry S Truman (1945-53)German?, Latin?Both Truman and Eisenhower are of a kind. (Actually, one could throw Reagan and Hoover into this category, too) That is, they all were in public school in the Midwest. At the time, German, Latin, and maybe French would have been the languages offered. German classes would have probably been dropped after World War I. Whether any of them took any of these languages isn't clear.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)German?, Latin?See Truman.
John F. Kennedy (1961-63)Latin, but definitely not GermanJack studied Latin at no fewer than three prep schools. He is famous for the Ich bin ein Berliner gaff - 'I am a jelly donut'. The Germans liked him anyway.

Jackie (Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) was the real polyglot of the family. She ended up with a Bachelor of Arts in French Literature from George Washington University and apparently earlier studied French at Vassar. Her French was quite fluent. Before her trip to France with President Kennedy, she filmed a documentary in French on the White House lawn. The French loved her for it, so she had the honor of being one of the few Americans that the French haven't been rude to. She also could manage varying degrees of Spanish, Italian, German, and even Polish, according to carlanthonyonline. Here is Jackie speaking French. Here is Jackie in Spanish.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69)Spanish?Johnson's high school was not a good one. It was small and only went to the eleventh grade. People were not rich in the area and there was little expectation that the kids were headed to college. I haven't been able to learn whether Latin or any other subject was offered, much less whether Johnson took any language even if it were. He did manage to get into a small college for teachers and first started teaching in a small school that had mostly Mexican-American kids in it. He may have learned a little Spanish that way.
Richard Nixon (1969-74)LatinHe came in second in Latin at Whittier High School in California. He was even in a play in Latin.
Gerald Ford (1974-77)LatinA biography says he struggled with it.
Jimmy Carter (1977-81)SpanishJimmy speaks some Spanish. It seems it's more than the words and phrases thrown in for consumption by Spanish speaking audiences à la Bush below, but it is said he has a poor accent.
Ronald Reagan (1981-89)None?I don't think "Dutch" could speak Dutch or any other language. I suppose there are news clips of his use of гласность and перестройка. Take a look at the Truman note.
George H. W. Bush (1989-93)LatinHe studied it at Phillips Academy. He was a member of a fraternity called Auctoritas, Unitas, Veritas.
Bill Clinton (1993-2001)Latin, GermanA post in the deepest, darkest parts of the Internet says: "[A]s someone who has lived in Germany for 19 years, I can report that it [Clinton's German] was rusty but competent and perfectly comprehensible." Chelsea knows some, too. Bill had four years of Latin in high school.
George Bush (2001-09)Latin; "Spanish"His Spanish is considered something less than stellar. He seems to know a few phrases which he uses with Spanish-speaking audiences, but not much more. He has a heavy accent. And it is often said that he couldn't speak English either. But before anyone says I'm picking on him, Al Gore was the same when it came to using bits of Spanish here and there. As one commentator said - they get an 'a' for effort but an 'f' for sincerity. He started a company called Arbusto, Spanish for 'bush'. It failed like two others. It went arBUSTo, Texans liked to joke. Brother Jeb can speak Spanish well and has had interviews with Spanish language media (in Spanish) in Florida where he was governor. So I guess it's not a genetic thing.

He did study Latin at Phillips Academy. I'm surprised it didn't help his Spanish more.
Barack Obama (2009-)Indonesian, Spanish, Swahili; Luo?; Hawaiian Pidgin?It's not clear how much Indonesian Obama knows. He spent the ages 6-10 in Jakarta—formative years for language learning. His wiki and volokh.com says he is conversant in it. He has never claimed to be fluent in it. (His half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng apparently speaks it well.) There is a brief clip at Youtube with him speaking a very little bit of Indonesian. My impression (from only a 37 second clip) is that he understands it but would much rather speak in English. Remember: What Indonesian he learned was 40 years ago.

It seems he knows no Sundanese or Javanese—the local languages spoken in and around Jakarta. His step-father Lolo Soetoro was ethnically Javan. His mother's doctoral thesis was Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: surviving and thriving against all odds. Given the subject matter and the people she was working with to write this, she almost certainly knew some Javanese. She lived for a while in Yogyakarta, a center of Javanese culture. In her wiki she is reported to have said that the more Lolo became American, the more she became Javan.

His father was Luo. Obama seems not to know Luo (a.k.a. Dholuo) at all except for maybe a few basic pleasantries. At least that's what I think I remember from a documentary of his visit to Kenya when he was a senator. I found the same in an Obama biography for children. But at volokh.com he says he has a "smattering of Swahili," the lingua franca of East Africa.

There is no mention of him knowing any Hawaiian—or not much more than the average person growing up in Hawai'i would know. And sadly, that's usually not much, even among native Hawaiians. (From the 1980s on this is slowly changing, and more Hawaiians are learning and using Hawaiian.) He may know some Hawaiian Pidgin.

His parents met in a Russian language class at the University of Hawai'i, Mānoa.

One would have hoped that he had had some language during his education in Hawai'i. Punahou, the prep school he graduated from requires two years of a foreign language to graduate. It probably was the same in the 1970s. As I hazily remember from a documentary on Hawaiian Pidgin, there was a considerable emphasis on learning Japanese at the time for the tourist industry. Punahou offers about a half dozen languages now. I can't find any list of classes he had at Punahou.

You would think he had had some Latin at some point (he was a constitutional law professor!).

Sadly, he is capable of Spanish à la Bush: I've heard him say sí, se puede at political rallies. On the other hand, in the excerpt from the article at The Volokh Conspiracy, he says his Spanish is better than that—though not much. President Obama had some Spanish at Occidental and Columbia.

We also have President Obama saying in Irish (Irish Gaelic) Is féidir linn and a bit more that I couldn't make out. Is féidir linn means 'Yes, we can'.

As an aside, according to Rachel L. Swarns's American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, Michelle Obama's grandfather Fraser Robinson could speak Gullah. He did not pass the language along to his descendants.