Of the 45 men who have held (or will hold) the title of President of the United States, 21 of them have, to some degree, spoken a foreign language (i.e. one that was not English). The most commonly spoken foreign languages were Latin and Greek, which were both spoken to some extent by at least ten presidents, while a further five had some knowledge of Latin only. The majority of those who studied these languages were required to do so in order to gain entry to educational institutions, although there are some reports that President John Adams had worked as a Greek and Latin teacher before taking office, while James A. Garfield was a professor of these subjects in Hiram College, Ohio. There are also more anecdotal claims that Garfield (who was ambidextrous) could write in both languages simultaneously with each hand. Martin Van Buren is notable as he was the first U.S. president born following U.S. independence; which may make it more surprising that he is the only U.S. president who did not speak English as a first language, instead growing up in a Dutch-speaking community in New York, while learning English in school.
Three U.S. presidents, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Quincy Adams, appear to have been fluent in at least three foreign languages, while Jefferson and Adams had some knowledge of a number of other languages. Jefferson famously boasted to Adams once that he had learned Spanish in just 19 days, by using a just a grammar book and a copy of Don Quixote, although Adams expressed doubts over the legitimacy of these claims. Jefferson was known, however, to study somewhat uncommon languages, and was known to translate documents into Old English, while books in Arabic, Irish Gaelic and Welsh were found in his personal library after his death.
Of the six currently-living U.S. presidents, President Trump and Biden are the only without some proficiency in a foreign language. President Carter is said to have had a fluent grasp of the Spanish language, and has continued to practice it in recent years (although he often downplays his own abilities when interviewed about it), while President George W. Bush has made some public addresses (partly) in Spanish. President Clinton studied German in university, is said to speak it fluently, and has even made public addresses in German while in Berlin. President Obama was said to have become fluent in Indonesian as a child, when living in the country between the ages of six and ten; this is one of the few non-European languages (along with Hebrew and Mandarin) to have been spoken by a U.S. president, although Obama has also downplayed his proficiency in the language while in office, sometimes claiming not to speak any foreign languages at all.
Number of non-English languages spoken, either fluently or partially, by all U.S. presidents elected between 1789 and 2021
*Martin Van Buren's first language was Dutch. He spoke fluent English.
Proficiency and fluency in languages is a subjective topic; the sources used claim varying levels of proficiency or fluency for each president. For the purposes of displaying this data, cases where the presidents appeared to be fluent in a given language have been given a value of 1, while cases where presidents had partial knowledge or their proficiency level is unclear have been given a value of 0.5.
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Statista. (February 18, 2021). Number of non-English languages spoken, either fluently or partially, by all U.S. presidents elected between 1789 and 2021 [Graph]. In Statista. Retrieved December 09, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1122196/foreign-languages-spoken-by-us-presidents-since-1789/
Statista. "Number of non-English languages spoken, either fluently or partially, by all U.S. presidents elected between 1789 and 2021." Chart. February 18, 2021. Statista. Accessed December 09, 2023. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1122196/foreign-languages-spoken-by-us-presidents-since-1789/
Statista. (2021). Number of non-English languages spoken, either fluently or partially, by all U.S. presidents elected between 1789 and 2021. Statista. Statista Inc.. Accessed: December 09, 2023. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1122196/foreign-languages-spoken-by-us-presidents-since-1789/
Statista. "Number of Non-english Languages Spoken, Either Fluently or Partially, by All U.S. Presidents Elected between 1789 and 2021." Statista, Statista Inc., 18 Feb 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1122196/foreign-languages-spoken-by-us-presidents-since-1789/
Statista, Number of non-English languages spoken, either fluently or partially, by all U.S. presidents elected between 1789 and 2021 Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1122196/foreign-languages-spoken-by-us-presidents-since-1789/ (last visited December 09, 2023)
Number of non-English languages spoken, either fluently or partially, by all U.S. presidents elected between 1789 and 2021 [Graph], Statista, February 18, 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1122196/foreign-languages-spoken-by-us-presidents-since-1789/