Election fever is at an all-time high… but have we ever stopped to think about the languages candidates speak?
Sure, Pete put multilingualism in the spotlight during his time running for the primaries… but how do our current runners fare?
With US elections less than a week away, we’re looking both back in history and ahead to see which US Presidents were bilingual – or even polyglots – and how other global leaders fare.
While one would assume world leaders need to speak multiple languages to handle diplomatic relations and enhance ties abroad, only 20 out of 45 (44%) US presidents spoke a second language. The most multilingual of all US Presidents was allegedly President John Quincy Adams – reportedly fluent in seven other languages: French, Dutch, Russian, Latin, Greek, Italian and German.
President Thomas Jefferson was known for speaking Spanish, but he also studied French, Italian, Latin and Greek, while his library reportedly included Arabic and Welsh dictionaries. Sadly, there has not been a bilingual US president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Today, some of the most well-known leaders of English speaking countries – the United States, Australia and New Zealan – are monolingual, even though Jacinda Ardern, from New Zealand, apparently wishes she had learned Maori.
Some famous monolingual world leaders
1. Donald Trump (USA) – English
2. Xi Jinping (China) – Mandarin
3. Scott Morrison (Australia) – English
4. Alberto Fernandez (Argentina) – Spanish
5. Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) – Brazilian Portuguese
6. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Mexico) – Spanish
7. Yoshihide Suga (Japan) – Japanese
8. Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi (Egypt) – Arabic
9. Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand) – English (wishes she had learned Maori)
At NaTakallam, our experience has shown us that learning a language doesn’t stop at syntax. Learning a language provides much more than words – it opens doors to new cultures, builds empathy, and fosters intercultural understanding. Multilingualism can provide an avenue for conflict prevention and diplomacy, helping avoid misunderstandings, and perhaps even prevent wars and conflict from escalating.
Multilingual world leaders are of course not without fault, but here’s a look at the panoply today:
Some famous multilingual world leaders
1. Emmanuel Macron (France) – French, English, German
2. Angela Merkel (Germany) – German, English, Russian
3. Boris Johnson (UK)- English, Latin, French, Italian – (we were surprised too!)
4. Pedro Sanchez (Spain) – Spanish, English, French
5. Sahle Work-Zewde (Ethiopia) – Amharic, French, English
6. Vladimir Putin (Russia) – Russian, German and a little English (we specify – a little…)
7. Ursula von der Leyen (President of the European Commission) – German, French, English
8. Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa) – English, Afrikaans, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Ndebele, Isizulu, Setswana, Sepedi, IsiXhosa
9. Giuseppe Conte (Italy) – Italian, English
10. King Abdullah II (Jordan) – Arabic, English
Studies have shown that learning a foreign language directly correlates to the learner’s ability to empathize with and enhance understanding towards the speakers of that language and subsequently, their culture. Bilingualism or even, multilingualism fosters cross-cultural connection to the benefit of everyone involved. Language learner Katie Santamaria, emphasizes that, “Understanding each other’s intricacies [..] is an opportunity that shouldn’t go to waste.”
In an increasingly divided world, cultural understanding and respect destroy the walls our world leaders try (and fail at) building.
In a recent debate, Biden surprised us all with his appropriately sarcastic use of the famous “Inchallah” – which means God Willing in allusion to Trump sharing his tax records… one day. As for Trump himself, his Spanish skills are just great. 🙂
Given what the world’s looking like, this election season, we’re offering any president or presidential candidate a bundle of 10 Free NaTakallam sessions ;). Send us an email with your special request at [email protected]!
Yalla, what are you waiting for? After all… ❝If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.❞‒Nelson Mandela