Following Up: Presidential Second Languages

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ben Zimmer, On Language columnist for The New York Times, follows up on President Obama's knowledge of Indonesian with a discussion of other presidents' second languages.


Ben Zimmer

Comments [7]

As a multilingual person myself, I found this segment quite interesting. In terms of presidential history, however, there were two glaring omissions - Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt handled three languages, among them German and French. He read the latest German literature along with his English-language regimen during his nightly marathon reading sessions. Indeed, perhaps his global diplomatic contacts might have averted the First World War, had he won a national election on his third party Bull Moose ticket after leaving the White House in 1909.

Then, there is Franklin Roosevelt, who, as a boy, actually spoke English with a Dutch accent. During an extended family trip at this time, he actually attended classroom instruction in Germany, writing a letter in German to his mother at the age of six. The letter can be seen at the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, NY. In the White House, he confronted the rise of nazism in Germany. In sorting out the facts, he would listen to Hitler's speeches on the radio with his advisers. He would interpret what was said on the spot and discuss American policy implications with his circle of advisers. He also knew French.

What an amazing addition this might have been on the November 12 program.

Nov. 28 2010 12:01 PM

Amy, there are about 800 languages spoken in Indonesia...

Nov. 14 2010 11:43 AM
camdiggidy from Brooklyn

If Obama spoke Pidgin English outside of Hawaii, no one would have any idea what he was saying. I can't understand my own uncle half the time!

Nov. 12 2010 12:10 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Are any other languages native to Indonesia (as opposed to being languages of colonizers)?

Nov. 12 2010 11:57 AM
Eric from NYC

I thought W was fluent in Spanish.

Nov. 12 2010 11:55 AM
Tonky from Red Hook

Back at YALE? Oooooohh... I'm sure Hogworts was fun and everything, but you can just say "back in college" dude, no one cares.

Nov. 12 2010 11:52 AM

Martin Van Buren spoke Dutch

Nov. 12 2010 11:51 AM

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