10 US Politicians Who Speak A Foreign Language
Despite the United States being a multilingual melting pot, the relationship between American politics and foreign language isn’t a particularly close one. In fact, we haven’t elected a truly bilingual president in 84 years (Franklin D. Roosevelt, who spoke German and French). Sometimes bilingual politicians will try their hand at speaking a foreign language to appeal to a specific voter base or showcase their “multiculturalism,” but it just as often backfires. One memorable example is when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to speak Spanish in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in 2011. His Spanish was so rough, it inspired the satirical Twitter account @ElBloombito.
There are a handful of United States politicians, however, who are proficient or fluent in at least one foreign language. Here are nine of the most notable bilingual politicians.
Julián Castro — Spanish
During the 2020 Democratic primary debates, many bilingual politicians broke out their Spanish skills. It didn’t necessarily go well, with former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Mayor (and dubious polyglot) Pete Buttigieg being roundly made fun of. This wasn’t so much for their language skills themselves — though they weren’t all stellar — but because it was seen as shameless pandering. The one politician who didn’t get as much flak was former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, who we also ranked as the best Spanish speaker of the bunch (though he did mix up por and para at one point).
Castro was born in San Antonio, Texas, and his family immigrated from Mexico a century ago. Because of this, English has been his primary language for his entire life. While he speaks some Spanish, he doesn’t consider himself fluent in the language. This has drawn a range of reactions, though notably writer John Paul Brammer has written that not knowing his ancestral language perfectly makes Castro authentic, and that conflating language skills with identity is an unfair form of gate-keeping. In an interview from 2015, Castro said, “Whether someone is fluent in Spanish or not does not define whether or not he or she is Latino. There are many more things involved in that.”
Bill Clinton — German
In 1994, President Bill Clinton walked through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and made a speech to the German people, praising the emergence of the European Union. At the end of the speech, Clinton delivered a few lines in German: “Nichts wird uns aufhalten. Alles ist moeglich. Berlin ist frei.” (“Nothing will stop us. Everything is possible. Berlin is free.”)
Backing up a few decades, Clinton studied German when he was a student at Georgetown University. In his book My Life: The Early Years, he writes that he chose German because he “was interested in the country and impressed by the clarity and precision of the language.”
Marco Rubio — Spanish
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was born in Miami to Cuban immigrant parents. He grew up in a Spanish-speaking household and is completely bilingual. In 2013, Rubio delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in both English and Spanish, marking the first time the response was delivered in two languages by the same person.
During a Republican presidential debate in February 2016, Rubio called out Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for his inability to speak Spanish. Cruz was criticizing Rubio for something he said on Univision, to which Rubio replied, “Well, first of all, I don’t know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn’t speak Spanish.” Cruz tried to respond in Spanish, but it didn’t go so well.
Mitt Romney — French
Apparently, the ability to speak French can be viewed as a negative attribute in a U.S. presidential candidate. At least, that’s how it seemed during the 2012 election cycle, when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich released an attack ad against former governor of Massachusetts and fellow presidential candidate Mitt Romney, criticizing his French skills.
The video above shows Romney speaking French while promoting the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. In the 1960s, Romney lived in France for two and a half years on a Mormon mission trip, which is where he picked up the language.
Condoleezza Rice — Russian
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice studied Russian when she was in college at the University of Denver. At the time, she was so enthralled with Russian culture, she named her car after her favorite Russian opera, Boris Godunov. She continued her studies of the Russian language at Moscow State University in the summer of 1979. In her book Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, she refers to herself at that point in her life as “a budding Soviet specialist.”
Rice rarely uses her language skills in public, making her one of the lesser-known bilingual politicians. The video above shows an interview she did with a Russian radio station in 2005.
Jeb Bush — Spanish
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush met his wife, Columba, when he was on a high school trip to Mexico. In a 2015 interview with Telemundo, Bush said this about his family life: “We speak Spanish at home. We eat Mexican food at home. Our children are Hispanic.” In the same interview, Bush said he really likes Cuban-American rapper Pitbull.
Bush used his Spanish skills during the 2016 election cycle to distance himself from then-candidate Donald Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric. Trump, in turn, criticized Bush for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail. Bush responded, “I’m going to campaign in the Latino communities and yes, Mr. Trump, if I’m asked a question in Spanish, I might answer in Spanish. I apologize.”
John Kerry — French
Former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who served as U.S. Secretary of State under Obama, attended a Swiss boarding school as a child while his father served in the diplomatic service in Berlin. During his time in Switzerland, Kerry learned to speak French fluently.
On the campaign trail in 2014, Kerry was often attacked for his connections with France, including his ability to speak the language and the fact that he has a French cousin. In 2016, Kerry was presented with the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the following when he gave Kerry the award: “Francophone, Francophile, you are certainly the most French of American officials.”
Tim Kaine — Spanish
Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vice presidential candidate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, took a year off from Harvard Law School when he was 22 to join a Jesuit mission in Honduras. He was questioning his faith and what he wanted to do with his life, and he was hoping the trip would help him find himself. He says his time in Honduras inspired him to enter a life of public service. It’s also where he became fluent in Spanish.
In 2013, Kaine became the first senator to give an entire speech in Spanish. In the speech, he argued for immigration reform proposed by the bipartisan group known as the Gang of Eight. Kaine’s ability to speak Spanish was seen as a way to woo Hispanic voters, but instead came across as a cop out because Kaine was chosen over all of the Latinx bilingual politicians being considered for the Democratic ticket.
Madeleine Albright — Czech, Russian And French
There are a lot of details you may not know about Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State. For starters, Madeleine’s not her real name — it’s Marie. She was born in Prague and grew up speaking Czech, but the story goes that when she was studying French, Albright decided she liked the name Madeleine better than Marie. When she was young, her family lived in London for a period, and they eventually emigrated to the United States in 1948.
When she was in her twenties, Albright gave birth to a set of premature twins. They were severely underweight and had to be kept in incubators, so to occupy her time, Albright enrolled in a Russian-language course. Later, she studied Russian and International Relations at Johns Hopkins University. The video above shows an interview Albright gave to Czech TV.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — Spanish
Though she’s a relatively new member of Congress, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has quickly established herself as a rising star of the Democratic party. She also might be a sign of a future where bilingual politicians are commonplace. Though Ocasio-Cortez herself was raised in New York, her mother was born in Puerto Rico and her father is a first-generation immigrant. Because of this, she grew up in a household that spoke Spanish, and she’s said Spanish is her first language.
Ocasio-Cortez has demonstrated her Spanish in a number of interviews, including the Telemundo video above that was taken shortly after she won her seat in U.S. Congress. She’s also been open about how maintaining her Spanish isn’t always easy, writing, “[Like] many 1st generation Latinx Americans, I have to continuously work at it & improve. It’s not perfect, but the only way we improve our language skills is through public practice.”