Multilingual Presidents

What happened to the halcyon days of yore1 when being multilingual was a requirement for considering yourself "well educated"?

Before 1900, language acquisition was an intellectual right of passage for the community of learned scholars including scientists, lawyers, statesmen, and priests. During the Enlightenment, Latin was to science as numbers are to mathematics. Masses were held in liturgical Latin. With its origins in the Roman Republic, English Common Law was practiced in a variant of French called Law French and recorded in Latin until 1730. (A notable exception was pleading-- as in "guilty" or "not guilty"-- which has been conducted in English since 1362 when the Norman conquerors finally accepted that the common Englishman didn't know enough French to make sense of his own case.)

Now? We can barely read English. Remember, though, that a lot of Americans don't speak English at home, and good for them! It takes some serious chutzpah to constantly switch back and forth between a mother tongue and the local lingua franca, even if you're not fluent in the latter.

If the average American is only mostly fluent in English, then what about the well-educated Americans? Take, for instance, the 44 men who have served as President of the United States. Politely ignoring the Jacksonian bent against higher education, 17 Presidents had written or spoken fluency in at least one non-English language. Van Buren even spoke Dutch before he learned English. Grover Cleveland could write in Latin with one hand while writing in Greek with the other! However, only 4 since 1900 and none since FDR have been able to claim non-English fluency. (Unsurprisingly, Josiah Bartlet was conversational in liturgical Latin.)

Now, I will concede that the President will always have translators. And I'd rather her/him spend more time carrying out the stated duties of the office than practicing difficult phonemes. But when did spending several years in a foreign land become antithetical to serving as President?

Let us not focus unduly on the fortunate few who become President; we can look at the rest of the upper crust of American society. When did the ability to parley with foreign movers and shakers in their native tongues get left out of the education of America's aristocracy? What generation of the Boston Brahmin or the First Families of Virginia first deemed their children fit to face the world without fluency in French or German?

All is not lost, however. Boston Latin, one of the US's premier secondary schools-- and one with an apt name-- still has a Latin requirement for its pupils. St. John's College requires its students to learn Ancient Greek, Middle/Early English, and French as part of its Great Books Program. Even my own alma mater's royal charter puts Languages (with a capital L!) in line with the highest of academic pursuits, establishing

"... a certain place of universal study, or perpetual College, for Divinity, Philosophy, Languages and other good Arts and Sciences..."

Though my College had a foreign language requirement, I was exempt due to my 4 years of French in high school. Now, I'm not fluent in French by any means. I can order a beer and a baguette and thank them kindly for it, but that's about it. I wish I had been forced to really learn a second (or third!) language. I wish I had had access to immersion schools as a young child. Learning a language gets hard when you get even a little bit old!

Even though I'm a poor example, I'm all for making foreign language acquisition a hallmark of the American educational experience, right up there with necking in the backseat of '57 Chevys, and being forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day.

So sapere aude, and learn a new language with me.

  1. After rereading just the first clause of this blog post, I expect my diatribe reads like an insecure high school geek trying to convince the admissions officers of Ye Olde Ivy to give him a spot in the class of aught eleven. I regret nothing.