Multilingual U.S. Presidents
The topic of multilingual U.S. presidents begins with Martin Van Buren, eighth President (1837-41) of the United States. He is the only President whose first language was not English. It was Dutch.
Herbert Hoover, 31st President (1929-33), was another one of our multilingual U.S. presidents. He and his wife Lou Henry Hoover both learned Mandarin when they lived in China for several years around the turn of the 20th century.
Multilingual U.S. presidents who spoke French include: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
James Monroe, furthermore, achieved a high degree of mastery of both written and spoken Hebrew.
Because Latin and Greek were part of a classical education until recently, twelve presidents had extensive education in Latin and eight in Greek.
Both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush have knowledge of Spanish but neither can claim fluency. Barak Obama, from the age of six to ten, was enrolled in an Indonesian language school when he lived in Indonesia.
Side note: Jacques Villeré, the second (U.S.) governor of Louisiana (1816-1820), was a monolingual French speaker.
Returning to Jefferson, he was one our most truly multilingual U.S. presidents. In addition to studying Italian and Spanish, he collected word lists from a variety of Native American languages, including Powatan, native to Virginia.
Jefferson is the reason why the United States does not have a declared official language. He did not believe it was the business of the federal government to regulate what language(s) people speak.
Multilingual U.S States
Various U.S. states have decided to declare an official language, and it is, in every case, redundantly, English. I say ‘redundantly’ because English is already the de facto language of our legal and educational and all other public institutions, e.g. the DMV. As such, there is no need to protect it from anything, because only a perceived threat is a reason to declare a language official.
Two states have declared official languages because of perceived threats to their existence, namely Alaska and Hawaii.
In 2014 Alaska declared 20 Native American languages spoken in Alaska, such as Inupiaq and Tlingit, to be official along with English.
In 1978 Hawaii declared Hawaiian, a Polynesian language, to be official along with English.
In Oklahoma, on the land owned by the Cherokee and the United Keetowah Band (UKB), Cherokee has been official since 1991.
Tahlequah is in Cherokee County, Oklahoma. Cherokee is written in a syllabary, where each individual symbol represents a syllable.
Multilingual America and the Case of Spanish
New Mexico has no officially declared language. However, in the drafting of the state constitution in 1912, Spanish was given a special place. New Mexico is the only state to acknowledge a role for Spanish.
In 2015 the Instituto Cervantes in Madrid determined that the United States is now the world’s second largest Spanish-speaking country after Mexico. The findings were reported in The Guardian with the following statistics: “there are 41 million native Spanish speakers in the US plus a further 11.6 million who are bilingual, mainly the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants. This puts the US ahead of Colombia (48 million) and Spain (46 million) and second only to Mexico (121 million).”
The highest concentrations of Spanish speakers are in the South and Southwest:
New Mexico – 47%
California – 38%
Arizona – 30%
Let’s note that these states were formerly Spanish colonies. Spanish speakers living in these parts are apt to say, “We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.”
Historic Spanish Colonies
Miami has about a 40% Spanish-speaking population. The Cuban Revolution is involved in this statistic, as is the current political turmoil in South America.
And then there’s New York City with 18%, mostly due to immigration from Puerto Rico, particularly encouraged in the 1950s when the garment industry wanted workers. The cultural and linguistic implications are cleverly summed up in the number “I Like to Be in America” from West Side Story:
Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics stand the test of time.
Furthermore, in the run-up to the European Union’s economic union in 1999, specialists came to New York City to study its multilingual language policies.
Q: Why New York City?
A: It’s the most linguistically diverse place per square mile on the planet, second only to Papua New Guinea. In fact, NYC may now have surpassed PNG for linguistic diversity.
In the coming months as you listen to all the political nonsense that will surely be said about language (and from all sides), please remember three things:
-The United States never was and is not now a monolingual nation; nor have the people at the highest levels of government been monolinguals.
-The Spanish language has been spoken in North America for hundreds of years.
-The English language is under no threat in the United States.
See also: Languages Archives
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen