So, what is the role of language in the Presidency? Should US Presidents only speak in English?
Back in September, Presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were criticized by their counterpart Donald Trump for taking and answering questions in Spanish. In a debate Mr. Trump stated, “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish,” and that Governor Bush should “set the example” by only speaking English.
But we have to look at history…
While Mr. Trump is correct in his assessment that English is the primary language spoken in the United States, multilingualism has been a mainstay in the American Presidency since the foundation of the country.
In honor of President’s day we would like to share how multilingualism has played a role in the Executive Branch:
US Presidents | John Adams
The second President of the United States and the first President to live in the White House knew 3 languages from a young age. In preparation for attending Harvard University, his family made sure that he learned French and Latin fluently. He continued the tradition of multilingualism in his family by ensuring his son, who would eventually become President, went to school abroad to study language.
US Presidents | Thomas Jefferson
Arguably the most influential Founding Father claimed to know 5 languages in addition to English, which included: Ancient Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish. Jefferson was known to tell “large stories” by his colleagues after he claimed to learn Spanish in 19 days while sailing to France. After his death, books in Arabic, Irish, and Welsh were found in his library.
US Presidents | James Madison
The man who is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution” began studying Latin at the age of 12 and mastered Greek by the time he completed his High School education. Madison produced Latin to English translations from the writings of influential philosophers like Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel. In college, Madison learned Hebrew and stayed in school an extra year to perfect the language.
US Presidents | John Quincy Adams
One of the greatest diplomats of American history, Adams spoke fluent French and conversational Dutch at an early age as he went to school in both France and the Netherlands. Adams also became proficient in German after his father appointed him to be ambassador to Prussia. Adams dedicated himself to translating a page a day of German text in order to become proficient.
One of the most beloved Presidents in American history and the man who the Teddy Bear was named after was fluent in French. “Teddy” as many liked to call him was also able to read and understand German, although he struggled to speak the language.
Hoover is unluckily considered to be one of the most mediocre Presidents of all time. The Great Depression struck the country eight months after his election and he was a strong supporter of Prohibition, which quickly made him a one term President. Before entering the White House,Hoover and his wife learned fluent Mandarin Chinese. They often spoke the language in public when they wanted to keep information away from the press and potential eavesdroppers.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR, as many called him, is known to be the last multilingual President that the American people elected. He was raised speaking both German and French as he spent long periods of time in Europe to learn the languages. Native French and German speakers recognized his distinct New England accent when he gave speeches. Roosevelt’s expertise in French and German surely helped him rearrange the political structure in Europe after the first and second World Wars.
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