Of the 45 persons who have served as presidents of the United States, at least half have displayed proficiency in speaking or writing a language other than English. Of these, only one, Martin Van Buren, learned English as his second language; his first language was Dutch. Four of the earliest presidents were multilingual, with John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson demonstrating proficiency in a number of foreign languages.
James A. Garfield and his successor Chester A. Arthur knew Ancient Greek and Latin, but it was Garfield’s ambidexterity that would lead to rumors that he could write both at the same time. Both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke French, and Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke German. As for Asian languages, James Madison studied Hebrew, Herbert Hoover spoke some Mandarin Chinese, while Barack Obama speaks Indonesian at a conversational level.
DID YOU KNOW?
Yes, Thomas Jefferson was a polyglot and had knowledge of several other languages in addition to English. He was known to be fluent in French and had a good understanding of Italian, Spanish, and Latin.
Jefferson began studying French when he was young, and his proficiency in the language improved significantly when he spent several years in France as an American diplomat. While in France, he also learned Italian and had a chance to practice his Spanish. Additionally, Jefferson was knowledgeable in Latin, which was an important language in his education and in the study of classical literature and political philosophy.
Jefferson’s knowledge of foreign languages was important to his work as a diplomat and in shaping American foreign policy. He used his language skills to communicate with diplomats and political leaders from other countries and to read and translate important political documents. His ability to speak and read other languages also allowed him to keep up with the latest ideas and developments in Europe, which he then incorporated into his own political thinking and writing.
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