These Are the Presidents Who Spoke Multiple Languages (and How Donald Trump Compares)

Many Americans like the idea of learning a second language.

But fewer and fewer Americans are actually learning to speak multiple languages. In fact, the Pew Research Center reports that only about 25% of American adults self-report speaking a language other than English. And even in the Oval Office, bilingual presidents have become less and less common.

Let’s take a quick look at which presidents spoke multiple languages — and find out how Donald Trump compares.

1. John Adams

He learned three other languages. | The White House Historical Association

  • Languages learned: Latin, Greek, and French

Language Connections reports that John Adams — the second president of the United States and the first to live in the White House — learned three languages from a young age. To prepare him to attend Harvard University, his family ensured that learned both Latin and French. Rosetta Stone also reports that Adams taught both Latin and Greek at a school in Worcester, Massachusetts. And in a letter he sent to Thomas Jefferson, Adams lamented that even then, few Americans learned those languages.

Next: This president annoyed John Adams with all of his Greek quotations. 

2. Thomas Jefferson

He actually used his other languages. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: French, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Spanish

Monticello reports that Thomas Jefferson learned multiple languages — and actually used them. He could speak English, French, Italian, and Latin. And when it came to reading, Jefferson also attained proficiency in Greek and Spanish. Plus, Memoria Press reports that Jefferson used so many Greek quotes in his letters to John Adams — who liked Latin better than Greek — that Adams even complained about it. Monticello also adds that Jefferson owned dictionaries, vocabularies, and grammars in a number of other languages — including Arabic, Gaelic, and Welsh — but seems to have only dabbled in those languages.

Next: This president made corrections to Latin texts. 

3. James Madison

He learned Latin and Greek thanks to studying the classics. | The White House Historical Association

  • Languages learned: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew

Mental Floss reports that in the early days of the United States, studying the classics formed a fundamental part of every child’s education. Many of America’s earliest presidents could read Latin and Greek, including James Madison. Madison became so proficient with both languages that he often made corrections to Latin texts by scholars and philosophers. Rosetta Stone reports that Madison was also well-versed in Hebrew, and actually studied the language at the College of New Jersey (now called Princeton University).

Next: This president loved living in Paris. 

4. James Monroe

He spent time abroad in France. | The White House Historical Association

  • Languages learned: French

Rosetta Stone reports that James Monroe studied French in his youth. And both he and his wife became fluent in the language when Monroe served as the United States’ minister to France. In fact, the University of Mary Washington reports that Monroe and his family spent seven years abroad during the Washington and Jefferson administrations, and cited their years in Paris as the most influential of their lives. Back in the United States, Monroe’s family spoke French among themselves, used French to write letters to one another, and favored French food and French entertaining customs.

Next: This president served as a translator as a teen. 

5. John Quincy Adams

He might have known the most languages out of all the presidents. | The White House Historical Association

  • Languages learned: French, Dutch, Russian, Latin, Greek, German

Rosetta Stone reports that out of all American presidents, John Quincy Adams may hold the record for learning the most languages. As a child, he accompanied his father on diplomatic assignments, studying French and Dutch. When he was just 14 years old, he went on a diplomatic mission to Russia and served as a French translator. Adams also read Latin and Greek classics in their original languages. And he learned German while serving as the U.S. ambassador to Prussia, and later studied Italian.

Next: This president didn’t actually learn English as his first language. 

6. Martin Van Buren

His first language wasn’t English. | The White House Historical Association

  • Languages learned: Dutch

Mental Floss reports that even though Martin Van Buren goes down in history as the first American-born president, he also remains the only president whose first language wasn’t English. Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, an isolated village in New York state where most of the population, including his parents, spoke Dutch. He didn’t begin learning English until he started going to school, but did become bilingual.

Next: This president learned several languages in his youth. 

7. William Henry Harrison

He learned Latin thanks to his education in the classics. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: Latin and some French

William Henry Harrison, like many of his contemporaries, achieved proficiency in Latin as part of his classical education. Harrison studied the language — along with basic French — at Hampden-Sydney College, which he attended between 1787 and 1790. His study of Latin may have helped him when he went on to enroll at the University of Pennsylvania to study medicine.

Next: This president got a very classical education. 

8. John Tyler

He studied classical languages. | The White House Historical Association

  • Languages learned: Latin and Greek

You can add John Tyler to the list of presidents who were not just bilingual, but studied multiple classical languages during their youth. Memoria press reports that Tyler studied classics under a Scottish preacher named Donald Robertson. And as the press points out of Tyler and other early American presidents, “It is interesting to note that the study of Latin and Greek, which is what the term ‘classical education’ originally implied, was not something they learned in college, but something they were expected to know before they got there.”

Next: This president quickly caught up even though he was late to learn another language. 

9. James K. Polk

He was an older student, but he graduated with honors. | The White House Historical Association

  • Languages learned: Latin and Greek

James K. Polk got a later start on learning multiple languages than some other presidents. But he quickly made up for it. When he enrolled at a Presbyterian school, where he was older than most of the other pupils, he’d had no background in Latin or Greek. But he rose to the top of his class nonetheless, and went on to further his education in Latin, Greek, philosophy, logic, literature, and geography. Polk then attended the University of North Carolina, where he graduated with special honors in classics and mathematics.

Next: This president got a classical education, too. 

10. James Buchanan

He also learned Latin and Greek in his youth. | Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

  • Languages learned: Latin and Greek

James Buchanan also numbers among the presidents who learned Latin and Greek in their youth. (Unfortunately, that didn’t stop him from going on to become one of the most hated presidents in United States history.) Buchanan received a formal education beginning at an early age. He studied Latin and Greek at the Old Stone Academy in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. He later attended Dickinson College, also in Pennsylvania.

Next: This president specialized in ancient language at prep school. 

11. Rutherford B. Hayes

He was another president who received a classical education. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: Latin and Greek

You can also count Rutherford B. Hayes among the many presidents who received a classical education. Hayes’s father died a few weeks before his birth, so his uncle became a father figure for him and influenced his education. Hayes went to local schools in Ohio, and then went on to study at a preparatory school, where he actually specialized in ancient Greek and Latin. He graduated from Kenyon College and went on to study law at Harvard.

Next: This president used his language skills to develop a strange party trick. 

12. James A. Garfield

He could write in Latin with one hand and Greek with the other. | Edward Gooch/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: Latin and Greek

Mental Floss notes that it wasn’t particularly unusual that James Garfield had a working knowledge of both Latin and Greek. What is unusual? As America’s first ambidextrous president, Garfield developed a strange party trick. Supposedly, if asked a question, he could write the answer in Latin with one hand and in Greek with the other. Rosetta Stone also reports that Garfield taught Greek and Latin at what is now Hiram College in Ohio.

Next: This president could carry on conversations in classical languages. 

13. Chester A. Arthur

He was proficient but possibly not fluent. | National Archives/Handout/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: Latin and Greek

Stepes reports that Chester A. Arthur also numbers among the presidents who learned Latin and Greek as part of their formal education. Arthur may not have been fully fluent in either language. But Stepes notes that he achieved enough proficiency in each to carry on conversations in those classical languages — which we’d guess is probably a pretty rare skill today.

Next: This president could speak another language, but never mastered the grammar. 

14. Theodore Roosevelt

He was fluent in French. | Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: French and German

Language Connections characterizes Theodore Roosevelt as “fluent” in French. He could also read and understand German, though most experts would probably only count him as bilingual because he reportedly struggled to speak in German. Business Insider reports that Roosevelt’s Secretary of State John Hay once characterizes Roosevelt’s French as “lawless as to grammar,” but not difficult to understand.

Next: This president learned multiple languages despite his poor eyesight and possible dyslexia. 

15. Woodrow Wilson

He had weak eyesight and possible dyslexia. | Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: Latin, Greek, and German

The Miller Center reports that Woodrow Wilson had weak eyesight and possible dyslexia, which both delayed his learning to read. Additionally, public schools were few and far between in the South of Wilson’s youth, so he received most of his early education from his father. At 16, he enrolled at Davidson College, where he “excelled in logic, rhetoric, Latin, English, and composition while doing reasonably well in math and Greek.” He dropped out of Davidson after a year and attended the College of New Jersey, which later changed its name to Princeton University. Stepes reports that Wilson later learned to speak German.

Next: This president would speak a foreign language with his wife to prevent eavesdropping. 

16. Herbert Hoover

He worked as a mining engineer in China. | Central Press/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: Latin and Mandarin Chinese

Mental Floss characterizes Herbert Hoover as “highly proficient” in Latin. But Rosetta Stone reports that Hoover learned Mandarin Chinese when he worked as a mining engineer in China. He and his wife even continued to speak the language during their time in the White House. In fact, they would speak in Mandarin when they didn’t want others around them to understand or eavesdrop on their conversations.

Next: This president learned multiple languages, but never perfected his accent. 

17. Franklin D. Roosevelt

He has been called the last true multilingual president. | Central Press/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: German and French

Language Connections characterizes Franklin D. Roosevelt as the last truly multilingual president of the United States. Roosevelt grew up speaking both German and French, spending long periods of time in Europe to learn the language. However, he never perfected his accent, as native French and German speakers could recognize his New England inflections when he gave speeches. But as Language Connections notes, “Roosevelt’s expertise in French and German surely helped him rearrange the political structure in Europe after the first and second World Wars.”

Next: This president can speak another language relatively well (if you overlook his grammar). 

18. Jimmy Carter

He studied Spanish. | Gene Forte/AFP/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: Spanish

Business Insider reports that though he never achieved perfect grammar, Jimmy Carter can speak Spanish pretty fluently. Carter studied Spanish when he attended the United States Naval Academy. And he continued to practice the language when he went on Christian mission trips later in life. Even as president, Carter made speeches in Spanish on various trips abroad. He once characterized Spain as his favorite vacation spot, and used his language skills when he traveled there with his family.

Next: This president studied a foreign language in college. 

19. Bill Clinton

He studied German in college. | Pool/AFP/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: Some German

Mental Floss reports that Bill Clinton had to study a foreign language at Georgetown University when he attended in the mid-1960s. Because he became “interested in the country and impressed by the clarity and precision of the language,” he later explained, he chose to study German. That knowledge came in handy later, when Clinton delivered a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1994. Stepes notes that during that speech, Clinton promised German citizens (in German), “America stands on your side, now and forever.”

Next: This president learned a little bit of a second language. 

20. George W. Bush

He picked up Spanish while living in Texas. | Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: A little bit of Spanish

Though George W. Bush is far from bilingual, he does deserve a little bit of credit for picking up some Spanish during his youth in Texas. Bush even used that basic knowledge in some of his speeches over the years. Stepes notes that Bush became the first president to deliver weekly radio addresses in both English and Spanish.

Next: Barack Obama learned a little bit of this language. 

21. Barack Obama

He lived in Indonesia as a child. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: A little bit of Bahasa Indonesian

Similarly, Barack Obama definitely doesn’t count as bilingual. But when he lived in Indonesia with his mother and stepfather from the ages of 6 to 10, he did pick up some of the language. However, Stepes notes that Obama once lamented the fact that he doesn’t fluently speak a language other than English. “I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing,” Obama once admitted.

Next: Here’s how Donald Trump’s language skills compare. 

22. Donald Trump

He isn’t bilingual. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

  • Languages learned: Only English

Donald Trump definitely isn’t bilingual. (And he famously criticized a fellow Republican presidential hopeful, Jeb Bush, for showing off his fluency in Spanish.) But some members of Trump’s family do speak multiple languages. Trump’s first wife, Ivana, reportedly speaks Czech and Russian. His oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., supposedly speaks French and Czech. Plus, his daughter, Ivanka, can speak French. Trump’s son Eric speaks French. Trump’s third wife, Melania, reportedly speaks Slovenian, French, German, and Serbian. And Barron, the son of Donald and Melania, is reportedly bilingual and fluent in both English and Slovenian.

Read more: Which President Broke More Campaign Promises: Donald Trump or Barack Obama? And How Former Presidents Compare

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