Does speaking a second language increase your odds of winning the US presidential election 2016?

by OFER TIROSH 28/04/2016

Speaking a second language can open many doors. It allows you to negotiate business arrangements with suppliers and partners overseas, enjoy a country that you are visiting to the full and of course enjoy working as a translator. But does it increase your chances of winning the US presidential election?

Presidential language skills

At least half of the US’s 43 presidents have been able to speak a second language. One of them – Martin van Buren – even spoke English as a second language (his native tongue was Dutch). However, no president since Franklin D Roosevelt (who spoke both French and German) has been able to speak a second language fluently. 

The loss of second languages

The ability to speak a second language has waned over time, so far as US presidents are concerned. Twelve presidents during the 19th century were fluent in at least one second language. In fact, many of the twelve were fluent in both Latin and Greek thanks to the importance of these as part of their classical education. 

By contrast, only four presidents in the 20th century could speak a second language fluently: Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt both spoke French and German fluently; Woodrow Wilson spoke fluent German and Herbert Hoover was fluent in both Latin and Mandarin Chinese. Hoover’s wife was also fluent in Mandarin, which the pair were known to converse in when they wanted to keep a conversation private from the prying ears of the press (or indeed their dinner guests!). 

So far in the 21st century, no president has been able to speak a language fluently. George W Bush speaks some Spanish and has used it in speeches and Barack Obama has done the same with Indonesian, but neither individual is approaching fluency. 

Will the next US president speak Spanish?

If America’s 54 million Latino citizens are hoping for a Spanish speaking president any time soon they they are set to be disappointed. Not a single one of the remaining two Democrats and three Republicans who have a shot at the presidency can speak Spanish – or indeed any second language. 

So does speaking a second language increase your chances of winning the US presidential election? It may have done in the past but these days it seems that monolingual presidents are increasingly becoming the norm. 

Final thoughts

What advantages could a bilingual president bring to the US? Should those running for office brush up on their Spanish? Share your thoughts via the comments. 


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