Who was the only American president to learn English as a second language? What foreign language is the most popular among U.S. presidents? What commander-in-chief spoke Mandarin Chinese?
Presidents’ Day can come and go without too much of a hullabaloo. But really – especially in regards to language and history – there’s a lot to be learned. In honor of Presidents’ Day, here are a few facts and figures about the presidents’ command of languages from outside our borders:
- Less than half of the presidents were proficient in speaking or writing a language other than English.
- Only one president, Martin Van Buren (in office 1837-1841), did not speak English as his first language. Growing up in the Dutch community of Kinderhook, New York, he spoke Dutch as a child and learned English as a second language while attending the local school house.
- Most presidents who served in the 18th and 19th centuries studied Latin, as part of the tradition of classical education that was prevalent at the time in American schools.
- The second president, John Adams, taught Greek and Latin at a school in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the beginning of his career. In a letter he sent to Thomas Jefferson while serving as president, Adams lamented that few Americans learn these languages.
- James Garfield (in office March-September 1881) also taught Greek and Latin, at what is now Hiram College in Ohio.
- One of the most prominent intellectuals of his time, Thomas Jefferson was known among other things for his language skills. He claimed to read and write five languages in addition to English—Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish—but also had books and dictionaries in languages like Arabic, Gaelic, and Welsh.
- James Madison, the fourth president of the United States (1809-1817), was well-versed in Hebrew, having studied the language at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).
- French was often heard in the Monroe White House (1817-1825). James Monroe had studied the language in his youth and, along with his wife, became fluent while serving in Paris from 1794 to 1796 as U.S. minister to France.
- Of all the presidents, John Quincy Adams (in office 1825-1829) may hold the record for language learning. As a child, he traveled with his father on diplomatic assignments all over the world, allowing him to study French and Dutch. When Adams was just 14 years old, he accompanied a diplomatic mission to Russia as a French translator. He also read the Latin and Greek classics in their original languages, like many of his contemporaries, dedicated himself to learning German while serving as the U.S. ambassador to Prussia, and later learned Italian.
- Herbert Hoover, who served as president from 1929 to 1933, learned Mandarin Chinese while working as a mining engineer in China. He and his wife Lou—whose Chinese names were Hoo-Yah and Hoo-Lou, respectively—even spoke the language occasionally during their White House years, when they didn’t want people around them to understand.
Want to compete with Hoover’s knowledge of Chinese? Maybe study French like President Monroe? Or tackle multiple languages like Jefferson and John Quincy Adams? Luckily, you can have an advantage over them, with Rosetta Stone!