Presidential Languages (or Lack Thereof)

It isn’t that a U.S. president who spoke two or more languages would be wiser, humbler, or even more learned than one who didn’t. Such a person would not necessarily respect other countries and cultures, support language education, or recognize the gifts that immigrants can bring. Yet he or she could strengthen and enrich the country in the following ways.

Language learning would become a recognized good. A president who learned a second language would inspire others do do the same, or at least deflate the notion that speaking languages other than English makes you un-American. Learning languages and being American (i.e., United States American) would come together.

A president who had learned a second language at home–for instance, from immigrant parents or grandparents–would understand what it means to translate from language to language, country to country, generation to generation; to switch languages upon entering and leaving the home; to know certain registers of a language but not others; to have a feeling for a language and its cadences; and more.

A president who had learned a second language through study would know what it was like to understand little or nothing, initially, of what others were saying, and then come to understand it over time. Such a president would recognize that understanding comes gradually and is never complete.

A president who spoke more than one language would earn respect both abroad and at home, for a good reason: he or she does not expect others to speak English all the time but can return the linguistic gesture.

Granted, a president could have all of these qualities–and more–without knowing a second language. About half of the U.S. presidents so far knew at least one language besides English, or a little of a language–but many esteemed ones, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, did not. John Quincy Adams studied many languages, including Dutch, Italian, and Russian, but his intellectual appetite was rare. Barack Obama speaks only English (and a little Indonesian, perhaps) but has tried many languages, even a few phrases here and there.

Far on the other end of things, Trump might know a little Gaelic (from his mother’s side of the family) and German (from his father’s), but I see no sign that he takes interest in these languages or does anything to increase his knowledge of them. If he did, his presidential demeanor and attitude would be different.

Once again: learning languages does not make you a better person, but it does make you aware of things you don’t know. Besides that, it’s interesting, and it’s good to do interesting things and learn to do them better, whether you’re a president, teacher, high school student, professional athlete, train conductor, magician, dolphin, or cat.

Yes, and despite the apparent disregard for languages at the presidential level, young people today have far more ways to study abroad, practice languages, meet native speakers, etc., than they did a few decades ago. Dual language schools have become increasingly common; study-abroad programs have taken new forms. Languages are not on the wane in the U.S., but they need more recognition. They need to inform the way we think and speak.

Still, I see small signs of an uplift in public discussion: more calls for listening to others, more admission of fallibility, more recognition of the issues at stake. Maybe in the upcoming elections we (across the political divides) will choose leaders who not only know things about the world but seek, in their daily work and leisure, to learn more. Maybe we will begin by doing the same ourselves. Maybe intellectual life, long demeaned in the U.S., will find its way over time to new respect and honor. And maybe languages will play a part.

A little addendum: Speaking of languages, I can now say the rather meaningless sentence “The most important thing is what we are doing now” in Hungarian: “A legfontosabb dolog az, amit most csinálunk.” Six months ago I could have memorized it, but now I understand more of the grammar and can put it together logically. “Fontos” means “important”; to say “more important,” you add the suffix “-abb,” and to say “most important,” you add the prefix “leg-” to this. “Dolog” can mean “matter,” “thing,” or “work.” “Amit” (“which” or “that”) is a subordinating conjunction consisting of “mit” (“what”) and the prefix “a-.” You can form other subordinating conjunctions in a similar manner: “ahol,” “amikor,” etc. Bit by bit, the language is taking shape in my mind.


In the photo above, Minnaloushe is looking intently at the Hungarian word “macska.” You can see from the slight blur that this did not last long.