Despite our nation’s long history of immigration, and the fact that almost all of our ancestors were immigrants, the control of a second language among the populace is surprisingly low. Not so with our presidents. Thirty of them were at least bilingual, with some mastering six (John Adams and Teddy Roosevelt), nine (John Quincy Adams) and even ten languages (Thomas Jefferson)!
While Greek and Latin were compulsory subjects for anyone looking at higher education at the time (Princeton, for instance, requires the proficiency of both languages to be considered for admission), the high rate of secondary languages among them indicates the understanding that languages offer them competitive advantages over their peers, either culturally or intellectually.
In an amusing anecdote, Jefferson, in an attempt to polish his Greek, drew the ire of his good friend John Adams by writing much of his letters in Greek. The two of them probably inspired Adam’s son, John Quincy, who became a translator at the age of 14! James Garfield, whose language skills remain a matter of debate, was also a notable linguist. At 27, he was appointed as the Professor of Ancient Languages and Literature at Hiram College.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, his aides claim that Obama could speak a little Indonesian.
However, Obama would later clarify that his control of the language is very poor. He speaks equally
poor Spanish, but still managed to deliver a taped radio address in the language in 2006.