Language in Leadership: The Language Learning Exploits of Our Presidents

In the history of the United States, being an exceptional leader has been defined by more More than half of U.S. Presidents have made foreign languages a part of their leadership skill set.than just a top-notch education, courageous decision-making, and inspiring eloquence. Indeed, most U.S. presidents had access to the best schooling money could buy, but many have also honed their leadership through foreign experiences as diplomats and soldiers. In fact, more than half of the 44 presidents have documented proof of being bilingual.

Here are some of the more fascinating cases:

• Most of the early presidents studied both Latin and Greek, as was the custom in any institution of higher learning at the time.
• Thomas Jefferson gained experience as the ambassador to France before becoming president himself. When he died, books in many other languages were found in his office, including Arabic, Gaelic, and Welsh. He once claimed to have taught himself Spanish over the course of a nineteen-day Atlantic crossing using a Spanish grammar book and a copy of Don Quixote.
• John Quincy Adams was perhaps the most ambitious language learner of all the presidents. He was educated in both France and the Netherlands, becoming the Secretary of State’s go-to translator for Dutch as a young man. When he was the Prussian Ambassador, he devoted a considerable amount of time to learning German. He also studied Italian and Latin, but didn’t have as much success.
• Martin Van Buren is the only president for whom English was not his first language. He grew up in Kinderhook, New York, a predominantly Dutch neighborhood at the time. He studied English in grammar school.
• James A. Garfield was ambidextrous. One of his party tricks was to write in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other simultaneously.
• Herbert Hoover was the first president to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese. If only he could see how valuable that would be now…
• Theodore Roosevelt spoke a French and German that was described by many as haphazard and grammatically incorrect.
• Like his distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt spoke both German and French, supposedly while still keeping his New England accent. Those skills would come in handy during his term…
• Spanish tends to be the second language of choice for modern presidents. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush both used the language during their campaigns. Bill Clinton is conversational in German, even speaking the language during a speech at the Brandenburg Gate.
• President Obama can unevenly understand and speak Bahasa. He spent many of his elementary school years in Indonesia.

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