Number of foreign languages spoken by U.S. presidents 1789-2017

Of the 44 men who have held 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.

Jefferson's boasts

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.

Modern presidents

Of the five currently-living U.S. presidents, President Trump is the only one 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 2017

Loading statistic...
You need to log in to download this statistic
Register for free
Already a member?
Log in
Show detailed source information?
Register for free
Already a member?
Log in
Source

Release date

2020

Region

United States

Survey time period

1789 to 2017

Supplementary notes

*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.

This data was compiled from and cross-referenced with multiple sources, most notably; World Atlas, Business Insider, cheatsheet.com, and potus.com.

Statista Accounts: Access All Statistics. Starting from $708 / Year
Basic Account
Get to know the platform

You only have access to basic statistics.

Single Account
Your perfect start with Statista
  • Instant access to 1m statistics
  • Download in XLS, PDF & PNG format
  • Detailed references
$59 / Month *
Corporate Account
Full access

Corporate solution including all features.

* All products require an annual contract; Prices do not include sales tax.

Statistics on "U.S. presidents 1789-2020"

Statista Accounts: Access All Statistics. Starting from $708 / Year
Learn more about how Statista can support your business.