What American President Learned English as a Second Language?

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Who was the only US president to learn English as a second language? What foreign language has been the most popular among US presidents? What commander in chief spoke Mandarin Chinese?

Mount RushmorePresidents’ Day can come and go without much of a hullabaloo. But really—especially in regard to language and history—there’s a lot to be learned. In honor of Presidents’ Day, here are a few facts and figures about the presidents’ command of languages other than English:

  • Less than half of US presidents were proficient in speaking or writing a language other than English.
  • Only one president, Martin Van Buren (in office 1837–1841), did not speak English as his first language. Growing up in the Dutch community of Kinderhook, New York, he spoke Dutch as a child and learned English as a second language while attending the local schoolhouse.
  • Most presidents that served in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries studied Latin as part of the tradition of classical education that was prevalent in schools across the United States.
  • The second president, John Adams, taught Greek and Latin at a school in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the beginning of his career. In a letter he sent to Thomas Jefferson while serving as president, Adams lamented that few Americans learned these languages.
  • James Garfield (in office March–September 1881) also taught Greek and Latin, at what is now Hiram College in Ohio.
  • One of the most prominent intellectuals of his time, Thomas Jefferson was known for his language skills, among other things. He claimed to read and write five languages in addition to English—Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish—and he also had books and dictionaries in languages such as Arabic, Gaelic, and Welsh.
  • James Madison, the fourth president of the United States (1809–1817), was well versed in Hebrew, having studied the language at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).
  • French was often heard in the Monroe White House (1817–1825). James Monroe had studied the language in his youth and, along with his wife, became fluent while serving in Paris from 1794 to 1796 as US minister to France.
  • Of all the US presidents, John Quincy Adams (in office 1825–1829) may hold the record for language learning. As a child, he traveled with his father on diplomatic assignments all over the world, allowing him to study French and Dutch. When Adams was just 14 years old, he accompanied a diplomatic mission to Russia as a French translator. He also read the Latin and Greek classics in their original languages, as did many of his contemporaries. Adams dedicated himself to learning German while serving as the US ambassador to Prussia, and he later learned Italian.
  • Herbert Hoover, who served as president from 1929 to 1933, learned Mandarin Chinese while working as a mining engineer in China. He and his wife, Lou—whose Chinese names were Hoo-Yah and Hoo-Lou, respectively—even spoke the language occasionally during their White House years, when they didn’t want people around them to understand their conversations.


Step up to the presidential challenge!

Want to compete with Hoover’s knowledge of Chinese? Maybe study French like President Monroe? Or tackle multiple languages like Jefferson and John Quincy Adams? Luckily, you can have an advantage over them, with Rosetta Stone!

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