There are a few topics that you’re not supposed to talk to in mixed company: sex, religion and politics. Unfortunately, those are the most fun things to talk about. But if you want to avoid controversy while still sounding politically smart, you can whip out these fun facts about bilingual presidents of the United States. Here are 11 commanders-in-chief who could speak another language (and two honorable mentions).
Pre-20th Century Bilingual Presidents
1. John Adams (1797-1801)
Before he became our second president, John Adams was sent to Paris twice for extended periods to negotiate with France. While he was serving there, he learned to speak French fluently.
2. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
Thomas Jefferson was fluent in Spanish and could speak some French. John Quincy Adams wrote in his diary that Jefferson told him he had learned Spanish in 19 days while crossing the Atlantic, with the help of a copy of Don Quixote. But Quincy Adams also notes that Jefferson had a tendency to tell “large stories” (i.e. exaggerate).
3. James Madison (1809-1817)
While there’s not much evidence for his speaking ability, James Madison was said to be quite proficient in written Greek and Latin at a young age. Madison also studied Hebrew while attending Princeton University.
4. James Monroe (1817-1825)
Prior to becoming the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe was a minister to France and facilitated the Louisiana Purchase. Monroe and his family spoke French fluently.
5. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
While his father, the aforementioned John Adams, was serving in Paris, John Quincy Adams accompanied him and attended schools in Europe. He quickly became fluent in French, Dutch and German.
6. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
Martin Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York, a town of Dutch settlers. Dutch was his first language, and he learned English in school. Out of all the bilingual presidents, Van Buren is the only one who didn’t have English as his native tongue.
20th Century Bilingual Presidents
Photograph of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933.
7. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
Teddy Roosevelt could read in French, German, Italian and Latin, and kept his library stocked with books in all of those languages. He was also able to speak conversational French and German, but it them didn’t come easily to him. His Secretary of State John Hay once said Roosevelt’s French was “lawless as to grammar,” but not difficult to understand.
8. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Hoover’s wife, Lou, was his language-learning companion. Together, they translated a 16th-century document from Latin to English over the course of several years. They also learned Mandarin Chinese and would speak it when they didn’t want staff members to eavesdrop on their conversations.
9. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
FDR started learned French and German at a young age. Governesses from France and Germany taught him their respective languages, as did a Swiss governess. Additionally, Roosevelt’s family traveled to Germany for five consecutive summers to get treatment for his father’s ailing heart. FDR attended German schools for a while, where he continued to improve his language skills.
10. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
Jimmy Carter studied Spanish when he attended the United States Naval Academy, and continued to practice the language on Christian mission trips later in life. As president, he made speeches in Spanish on various country visits. Carter said Spain was his favorite vacation spot, and he practiced the language while there with his family.
11. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
Bill Clinton studied German during his college career at Georgetown University. He became proficient in the language, and spoke a little German in a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in 1994.
President Barack Obama addresses Congress in State of the Union speech.
Although it seems like the general trend of language proficiency among American presidents has declined over the years, we would be remiss not to give honorable mentions to two of our 21st-century leaders.
George W. Bush (2001-2009) had some basic knowledge of Spanish from his many years living in Texas, and he even sprinkled it into a few of his speeches. His pronunciation, however, was widely mocked.
Barack Obama (2009-2017) lived in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather from ages 6 to 10, and attended school there. He developed a basic understanding of the Indonesian language and spoke a little bit in at least one speech.