Elections

The U.S. has not elected a bilingual president in 84 years

The United States has not elected a president fluent in a language other than English in 84 years.

And in a field of 11 remaining presidential candidates, only two are likely to change that: Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

The last commander in chief who spoke a foreign language fluently was Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected to his first term in 1932, who had been taught French and German since he was a child.

Four of the nation’s earliest presidents were multilingual, educated in classical languages such as Latin and ancient Greek, as well as German, Italian and most importantly French.

In more recent history, the ability to easily communicate in another language has gone from asset to liability. Presidential candidates John Kerry in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2012 found that speaking fluent French was turned against them by opponents who painted them as elitist – and even worse, European-style – politicians.

Romney, who spent two years as a Mormon missionary in France, began a video for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City by introducing himself in one of the official languages of the international games: “Bonjour, je m’appelle Mitt Romney.” The clip was used in a 2012 attack ad on behalf of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, which compared it to a clip of John Kerry speaking French.

Another 2012 candidate for the Republican nomination, Jon Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China and Utah governor, was slammed for speaking fluent Mandarin. A viral YouTube attack ad called him “China Jon” and the “Manchurian candidate” and included clips of him speaking Mandarin, implying that voters should be suspicious of his motives. “American values or Chinese?” the ad asked.

Now, the United States again could have the chance to elect a bilingual president. Rubio, whose parents emigrated from Cuba, grew up speaking Spanish and English in Miami.

Bush learned Spanish after meeting his Mexican-born wife, and has said that at home he speaks his wife’s language more than English. He has been interviewed in the language countless times, confidently laying out policy position in accented but very clear Spanish. One of Donald Trump’s early attacks on the former Florida governor slammed him for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail.

“This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish,” Trump said at the second Republican debate in September when asked about his comments that Bush “should really set an example by speaking English while in the United States.”

But in an election year in which Hispanic voters have reached a record 27.3 million – a 40 percent increase since 2008, according to the Pew Research Center – Bush and Rubio’s fluency could be a big advantage.

Millennials make up almost half of Latino eligible voters, according to Pew. While speaking Spanish may no longer be necessary to reach out to them the way candidates did for their parents’ generation, fluency does show an understanding and acceptance of their culture.

Ted Cruz, the only other Hispanic candidate in the race, doesn’t speak much Spanish and hasn’t made an effort to in this election, though he did rattle off a phrase during his 2012 speech to the Republican National Convention.

Republican candidate Carly Fiorina lived in Italy and worked as an English teacher before going to business school, but she hasn’t touted her Italian language skills, either.

While there has been a marked historic downward trend among U.S. presidents when it comes to speaking foreign languages, the opposite is true for world leaders. Many heads of state nowadays have to speak at least passable English in addition to their national language or languages, and a lot of them are proficient in one or two more of their neighbors’ tongues.

Part of the reason may be that the American education system has long lagged behind its international counterparts in encouraging second language study.

“The United States may be the only nation in the world where it is possible to complete high school and college without any foreign language study, let alone with the mastery of another language,” former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in 2010, calling it a “high-stakes issue.”

“For too long, Americans have relied on other countries to speak our language. But we won’t be able to do that in the increasingly complex and interconnected world. To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries, Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages,” he said in a speech at the University of Maryland.

Only 25 percent of American adults self-report speaking a language other than English, according to Pew. Among those adults who are multilingual, 89 percent said they learned their language at home as children, while 7 percent said they learned it at school.

These statistics make it seem more likely that the United States could have a native Spanish-speaking president in the coming years.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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