In reviewing the presidential candidates for the upcoming U.S. Presidential election in November, a question came to mind. What languages – if any, do the candidates know fluently, or even on a conversational level? What about past presidents? Does it make a difference?
Surprisingly, on a site called presidential-candidates.org, there is an informational tab to the left listed as “Foreign Languages,” which pretty much covered the answers to some of those questions. I quickly discovered that Mitt Romney is fluent in French. While Obama speaks both Spanish and even some Indonesian, he is fluent in neither. So – does this affect the public’s perception of either candidate? Should the President speak a foreign language fluently?
Commentors who responded to a few others who have posed this question were mixed. On one hand, the viewpoint is that as a world leader, and a very prominent one at that, the President of the U.S. should be fluent in another language, if not a few. It communicates cultural understanding in a tangible way, with a much more personal approach in face-to-face conversation. While those on this side of the coin are not deluded about foreign language knowledge having the power to change a whole community’s mind about policies and advocated legislature, it certainly goes a long way for a U.S. President’s image and foreign relations. Because so much of the world views American society as one that does not see a need to learn the languages or cultures of those outside their own, an American President who did have fluency in Russian and German, or Italian and Dutch, or French and Chinese – would not only create a positive reaction from a global view, but it may even reflect positively upon the rest of the U.S. as far as the rest of the world is concerned.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the opinion is that foreign language fluency is not at all a crucial issue, or one that will ultimately affect how either Romney or Obama is elected to office. Very few, if anyone at all, will change their vote simply based upon the fact that Romney can speak French fluently, and Obama knows only a little Spanish and even less Indonesian. One commentor to a similar blog post went as far as to say, “that’s what translators are for,” going on to point out that it is the overall message, policies, actions and results of any leader – not just the U.S. President – that ultimately matter, and not whether or not he or she can hold a lengthy conversation in Bahasa with the Indonesian Ambassador, or whether Romney could get around in Paris without a tour guide, and Obama could not. As Joshua Keating put it in an article from “Foreign Policy”, if the President of the U.S. could speak perfect Mandarin, “..would Xi Jinping would be so impressed that he’d forgive America’s debts and let the yuan float on the spot?”
Still, it after looking at the list of foreign languages for each American President, starting with George Washington, it is immediately clear that the first ten presidents, with the exception of George Washington, knew more than just French, or a little Spanish. Every President from John Adams to James Polk spoke at least three or four languages. Many spoke up to seven or eight. John Adams had an impressive arsenal of foreign language fluency: Hebrew, Latin, Greek, French and Spanish, in addition to English. Interestingly, there is one President who spoke another language other than English as his native language, while speaking English to a lesser extent: Martin van Buren, whose native language was Dutch. A few presidents spoke Choctaw, a few spoke Mandarin. The last U.S. President to have fluency and/or a good grasp on multiple languages was FDR. Not since the 1930s has any President spoken multiple languages, except for a few scattered former-Mr.-Presidents with a so-so grasp of Spanish or German.
So the obvious question after seeing this shift over the past 250 years or so, is why was it obviously so much more important for American Presidents to know multiple languages in the 18th and early 19th centuries, especially when world travel was so much more infrequent and difficult?