Which U.S. Presidents were bi- or poly-... lingual?

There was a snippet on the news this morning about John Kerry being scheduled to speak to a Hispanic audience this week, and I wondered if he’d be able to address them in Spanish. And that got me thinking about what a boon it would be for Presidents to be able to speak at least one other language.

Have any other US presidents spoken one or more languages aside from English?

I know that Jefferson knew Latin, Greek, and French, and also that the current President Bush knows Spanish.

Dubya also spoke Spanish during campaign stops in 2000, but I don’t think I’ve heard nada from him since.

James Garfield was both polylingual and ambidextrous – he could write in Latin with one hand and Greek in the other simultaneously. And that’s pretty freakin’ amazing.

Holy crap! Really? I had no idea that was even possible.

Herbert Hoover and his wife spoke Mandarin Chinese.

*My * Spanish is better than Dubya’s, but Carter can carry on a conversation in it.

I believe that both Presidents Roosevelt spoke French.

I couldn’t find out which languages Woodrow Wilson knew, but i’m willing to bet that he had a couple.

Wilson received a Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University (still the only president to get one), after getting his undergraduate degree at Princeton.

That educational path in the late nineteenth-century would have included at least one, and possibly as many as four, other languages. It wouldn’t surprise me if he did Latin, Greek, French, and German at Princeton. French and German were considered essential among professional historians back then, and may well have been required for admission to the Hopkins Ph.D. program.

John Adams became quite passable in French while serving in Paris. If I recall correctly in his autobiography, his early studies included Latin and Greek.

Actually, the McCullough biography, not his autobiography.

Herbert Hoover must also have been reasonably competent in Latin because he helped his wife Lou Hoover with her translation into English of Georgius Agricola’s mining text de re Metallica.

I know Bush’s people say that he speaks Spanish and that the press as repeated the claim, but no one seems to be able to produce any evidence of its veracity. Reciting some lines written by someone else =/= speaking the language. I doubt Bush could form more than the most rudimentary phrases (“quiero una cerveza”) on his own.

I recently read that John Quincy Adams, who was a diplomat before being elected President, spoke seven languages.


Hey, that’s not fair!!! :mad:

You’re requiring that, in order to be considered to be Spanish-speaking, he speak Spanish better than he speaks English!

To be factually fair, IIRC G.W. Bush can speak Spanish without having someone phonetically spell it out for him. However, it’s clunky, rudimentary Spanish, just enough for a quick chat with (say) a waiter in a restaurant. Just don’t expect him to hold a prolonged in-depth conversation in the language.

Well, being able to make it through a simple sentence would mean it was better than his English.


IIRC President Martin Van Buren grew up in a household where Dutch was the primary language.

Jimmy Carter’s Spanish isas good or better than George W. Bush’s Spanish. I’ve seen him interviewed on Mexican television, and while his accent was thick - he seemed to have a grasp on basic sentence structure. LBJ probably knew more Spanish than both, but I don’t think he used it much as president.

John Kerry speaks French, but I don’t think he has used Spanish. His wife Teresa is fluent in several languages, and campaigns in Spanish.

Hey, Canada had a Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, who can’t speak ANY language.

Yup. (I hardly ever provide cites…just wanted to see if I could do it.) :slight_smile:

James Monroe was U.S. ambassador to France, and spoke French very well.

John Quincy Adams also spoke French very well, which was invaluable during his time as Secretary of State, since French was then the international language of diplomacy.

He also spoke Russian quite well, having spent several years as U.S. ambassador to the Tsar’s court.

As Elvis mentioned, Herbert and Lou Hoover both spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently, having spent many years working as mining engineers in China. Legend has it that they found it handy to start speaking Chinese, any time they wanted to have a private conversation in a public forum.

No cite on this but I’d hazard the guess that Hoover was very competent in Russian too. He was internationally famous before becoming President on the basis of his early-1920s spearheading the collection and distribution of massive amounts of foodstuffs to combat a severe famine in Russia.