Language has always been important for U.S. presidents: the English language that is. Every syllable, every turn of phrase is analyzed. Remember the discussion over Bill Clinton’s meaning of “is”? Or the more recent dust up over the antecedent of “that” when Barack Obama said: “You didn’t build that”?
Despite this hyper-attention to speech, a U.S. presidential candidate’s ability to speak a foreign language has been a nonstarter or even a liability in recent years. First, Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004, then current Republican candidate Mitt Romney were blasted as elitist and even anti-American for speaking French.
But it wasn’t always that way. Of the last 44 presidents, nearly half have spoken at least one foreign language, and many spoke several. Thomas Jefferson mastered five languages and was said to have been studying Arabic, Gaelic and Welsh as well. Ambidextrous James Garfield loved to show off the fact that he could write in Greek and Latin, at the same time.
It’s probably not surprising that most of the multilingual U.S. presidents served before the modern era. In fact, after Franklin Roosevelt, no sitting president has been fluently bilingual, and only four had a limited conversational ability in a foreign language: Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush know some Spanish; Clinton speaks basic German; and Obama can say a few phrases in Indonesian.
The decline in U.S. presidents’ foreign language ability coincides with the rise of English as the world’s lingua franca. It is currently the official language of the United Nations and the European Union as well as many countries that have multiple native languages.
Of course, there’s also been a political shift in the U.S. regarding languages. In the past, the large majority of university students studied languages, especially Greek and Latin, so multilingualism was seen as a mark of education, not of political leanings.
Could you imagine the reaction today to a president who spoke Mandarin Chinese? Herbert Hoover did. And consider that both Republican darling Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat icon FDR spoke fluent French and German, the latter during WWII—and nobody questioned their patriotism because of it.
The political climate is different today. As CBS reported, a furor erupted a few years back when President Obama even suggested that American students should learn a foreign language. Just last week, a translation error in a publication by the conservative Government Accountability Institute raised additional anti-Obama furor in right-wing circles for even the suggestion of foreign influence on the presidential race.
Yet, we may see a change in attitudes toward bilingualism as the Hispanic population in the U.S. continues to grow. In the last few presidential campaigns already, we’ve seen candidates at least trying a few phrases in Spanish. Even Mitt Romney’s son Craig has stumped for his father in Spanish to court the Hispanic American vote.
And while English is currently the world’s lingua franca, it may not dominate forever. Even now, it is only the third most natively spoken language, behind Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Who knows? Herbert Hoover may have been onto something.