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Au Revoir! As President Obama Leaves Office, We Rate His Foreign Language Skills

Babbel has asked embassies and expats in the US to rate President Obama's attempts to speak languages from around the world.

During his eight years in office, Barack Obama has delighted people around the world by trying a few phrases in their native tongues. From addressing huge crowds in Indonesia to campaign ads fully in Spanish, the Commander in Chief is famed for his attempts at other languages. To commemorate President Obama’s last few months in office, we’ve approached foreign embassies and leading expat organizations in the US and asked them to rate the American president’s attempts to speak languages from around the world.

Though only fluent in English, President Obama has been a keen advocate of language-learning throughout his term. Speaking at the Young African Leaders Initiative in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, he declared, “Frankly, I wish we as Americans did a better job of learning other languages. Now, in an interconnected world, the more languages we speak, the better."

Highlights of Obama’s linguistic efforts

Obama’s Spanish, a language he has spoken extensively in campaigns and on television, is “almost perfect" according to the Embassy of Spain, who rate it 4 out of 5.

Obama’s command of Indonesian is also strong — the Embassy of Indonesia rates his attempts at 4 out of 5. This is probably attributed to his childhood in Indonesia, when he attended an Indonesian-language school for several years before returning to Hawaii.

However, the President’s attempts at French are less impressive. The French-American Foundation — who award Obama just 1 out of 5 — say that his French accent leaves much to be desired, and his attempted phrases “may as well have been American."

Interestingly, Obama speaking Arabic sounds “like an Arabic-speaker doing an impression of the President in Arabic." The Arab American Institute — who award Obama’s Arabic 3.5 out of 5 — are struck by how “Obama-like" his Arabic is, commenting how “the President’s signature voice and mannerisms are still prevalent."

“President Obama should be praised for engaging with foreign crowds and leaders by using their native languages," added Thomas Holl, co-founder of Babbel. "While our assessment of his language skills is light-hearted, the need for Americans to embrace learning other languages is a serious subject. President Obama’s willingness to try other languages should inspire Americans to do the same, because language learning is all about connecting with other people. There is no doubt that the President’s desire to immerse himself in other cultures and languages has helped him make meaningful connections all over the world."

Full results

Arabic

3.5 out of 5 (Arab American Institute, Washington, D.C.)


The AAI comments, “When you listen to him, you think, ‘Boy, he really emphasized that second part, the alaikum.’ It’s interesting that even in another language, the President’s signature voice and mannerisms are still prevalent. It’s hard to explain, but his Arabic comes out sounding very Obama-like, as if an Arabic-speaker were doing an impression of the President in Arabic."

Dutch

3.5 out of 5 (Netherland-America Foundation, New York, NY)


The NAF comments, “It appears that he swallows the ‘n’ in dank u wel, which instead now sounds more like ‘duckuwel.’ The ‘nk’ sound is a common one in English too, like in ‘Thank you.’ Perhaps he gives the Dutch too much credit in the complexity department, but he has the casualness and cohesion of the expression down — he pronounces it as one word, like we do, even though it’s actually three."

French

1 out of 5 (French-American Foundation, New York, NY)


The FAF comments, “Unfortunately, we cannot give President Obama high marks for his pronunciation. It was nice that he used the French words, but they may as well have been American."

German

3 out of 5 (German-American Society, Omaha, NE)


Greek

3.5 out of 5 (National Hellenic Society, Alexandria, VA)


The NHS comments, “It is cute how he said kalispera (good evening). This is usually pronounced a bit more sing-songy, and the emphasis is on the third syllable, so it would sound more like ‘ka-li-SPE-ra’. And he said it slightly run-together. But it is cute hearing him say it with his accent!"

Hindi

2.5 out of 5 (International Hindi Association, Washington, D.C.)


The IHA comments, “President Obama has good intentions [making efforts to speak Hindi]. He starts with the universal Hindi greeting, Namaste. Later, the President says Meraa Pyaar Bharaa Nameskaar (my affectionate greetings), and Bahut Dhanyavaad (many thanks). The final phrase he tries to use is not very clear: Sangrita Bade bade Deshon mein, or Bure Bure Deshon mein. But he is able to convey his message to his audience."

Indonesian

4 out of 5 (Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, Washington, D.C.)


Persian

4.5 out of 5 (Iranian American Society, New York, NY)


Spanish

4 out of 5 (Embassy of Spain, Washington, D.C.)


The Embassy comments, “We are really surprised by Obama’s Spanish! He speaks pretty great Spanish. We give him 4 out of 5, with 5 being a fully bilingual person. He really has a knack for languages. His pronunciation in Spanish is almost perfect!"

Swahili

4 out of 5 (Kenyan Americans Community Organization, Duluth, GA)


The KACOI comments, “It is a great effort!"

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