Polyglot Politicians: How Many World Leaders Speak English?

Sam Quillen
6 min readMar 31, 2024
Donald Trump and Narendra Modi have a lot in common, though not a common language. (Photo credit: BBC).

At a joint press conference in 2019, US President Donald Trump declared, as he often does on such occasions, that his Indian counterpart was a very smart man and his very close friend. He also commented that Narendra Modi “speaks very good English, he just doesn’t want to talk.” The line won big laughs from the audience, but Modi himself remained silent.

The joke landed because Mr. Modi does not, by all appearances, speak very good English. To his credit, he is more linguistically adept than Mr. Trump, being bilingual in Hindi and Gujarati, closely-related languages of northern India. But his limited skills can be a liability in a country where language is a deeply-rooted national issue. On a recent visit to the south, he even made an attempt to speak Tamil, but his party continues to punch well below its weight outside the Hindi-speaking heartland.

Around two billion people worldwide speak English, and the share is considerably higher among the educated. But a surprising number of major world leaders do not. Aside from a short, scripted speech at Davos a few years ago, there is no evidence that Xi Jinping of China does. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey speaks only Turkish, and apparently would rather Turkish schoolchildren study the imperial Ottoman register of their own language than foreign ones. Both Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil have made attempts to study it, but both of them ended up opting for the easier option of French, another Romance language.

Common language skills may have contributed to the impressive bonhomie on display between Lula and Macron during the latter’s recent visit to Brazil. (Photo credit: Times Now).

On the other hand, a lot of world leaders have at least moderate language skills, and some are quite formidable. Emmanuel Macron of France and Olaf Scholz of Germany both speak English quite well, as do pretty much all Northern European leaders. Conversely, Justin Trudeau of Canada speaks French, a skill so important in his country that a promising Conservative politician lost a leadership race a few years ago in part on the basis that he could not. In a turn that would have seemed bizarre not that long ago, the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak may speak Hindi better than his Indian counterpart does English.

Vladimir Putin of Russia has put his KGB background on full display addressing the Bundestag in German and writing New York Times op-eds in English. His enemy, Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, has done an admirable job catching up. Amidst all the strains of war, he has been learning both English and Ukrainian, which is a second language for him as he hails from the Russophone part of his country.

Latin American leaders often make an effort to address their hemisphere’s hegemon in English, though relatively few really speak it well. By contrast, many leaders in the more monarchical Middle East have been groomed from a young age for careers on the world stage.

King Abdullah II of Jordan speaks excellent English. Bashar al-Assad of Syria worked for several years as an ophthalmologist in London before his elder brother died in a car crash and he was called home to be groomed as his father’s successor. Most current Gulf princes are old enough to have been born subjects of the British Empire, and English fluency in the region has rocketed, for obvious reasons, in the past fifty years. All would have an easy time speaking with Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who studied at MIT, if only they would talk to one another.

The tiny principalities of Luxembourg and Monaco each technically have national languages (Luxembourgish and Monégasque), but their peoples and rulers universally speak French and English.

European monarchs always have been polyglots, thanks to their transnational heritages. Maybe the most impressive currently is Albert II of Monaco, who in addition to French, German, and Italian, speaks English in a perfect American accent, a gift from his Yankee mother. Still, secular rulers pale in comparison to the leaders of the Catholic (which, incidentally, is Greek for “universal”) Church. Pope Francis, originally of Argentina, speaks Spanish, Italian, Latin, and Portuguese, some French, English, and German, and apparently now a bit of Ukrainian. But he is practically a monoglot compared to the late Polish-born John Paul II, who could address the faithful in Polish, Italian, Latin, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Ukrainian, Slovak, and even some Japanese and Tagalog.

By contrast to all this, American presidents, like their constituents, typically have limited ability outside English. George W. Bush has made some admirable attempts at Spanish (in a Texas cowboy accent), and Barack Obama supposedly knows some Bahasa (i.e., Indonesian). Neither Trump nor Joe Biden apparently has any language skills (in foreign languages, or otherwise), and Jill Biden’s attempts at Spanish are cringe-inducing.

Things were different in a more aristocratic age. Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke French and German well, a list to which his elder cousin Teddy added varying abilities in Spanish, Latin, Greek, Italian, and Dutch (the New York family’s ancestral tongue). James Madison could read the Old Testament in Hebrew, and Herbert Hoover spoke some Mandarin. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, an experienced diplomat, spoke more than four.

See the full graphic at Statista: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1122196/foreign-languages-spoken-by-us-presidents-since-1789/

Even as growing numbers of people learn English, in a world in which nationalism is on the rise, language skills may not be a growing trend among politicians. The average statesman a hundred years ago (or three hundred) was definitely more linguistically adept than his equivalent today. However, perhaps surprisingly, nationalist politics does not always align with a lack of cultural interest.

Giorgia Meloni of Italy, a populist Euroskeptic who wants to fine businesses for using English words like “trash” or “parking” on signage, speaks twice as many languages (four) as her arch-globalist counterpart Monsieur Macron. Boris Johnson, the man who crashed the UK out of the EU, formerly worked as a journalist in Brussels and speaks fluent French, though he sometimes pretends not to, as when he demanded that Macron “prenez un grip” and “donnez-vous moi un break” in a diplomatic spat over submarines.

The late Shinzo Abe, who sent shockwaves across Asia building up his country’s military and taking on China, is one of the few Japanese prime ministers who spoke English (or anything outside Japanese). Nayib Bukele of El Salvador and Viktor Orbán of Hungary, both darlings of the nationalist right, speak English quite well; the latter studied at Oxford (on a scholarship for promising young activists funded by none other than George Soros).

Language skills have never necessarily translated into internationalism. Napoleon’s first language was Italian, but one of his foremost legacies is a system to eradicate linguistic diversity, including in his native Corsica. Kaiser Wilhelm II viscerally hated England, a country whose language he spoke so well he could pass for his cousin George V (and vice versa with George’s German). Sir Antony Eden spoke very good Arabic, which helped make him confident enough to plunge Britain into the disastrous Suez Crisis in 1956.

Wilhelm later grew a Teutonic mustache to set himself apart from cousins George and Nicholas (the tsar of Russia) (both pictured). The three spoke fluent English and German, though tragically they failed to communicate very well as their countries plunged into World War I. (Photo credit: Sky History).

There was a time when most world leaders would speak three or more languages, with at least one of them (e.g., Latin, Persian, Sanskrit, Classical Chinese, etc.) being one whose utility was limited entirely to praying or snobbiness. The world has gotten better in most ways since then. Still, in our globalised age, it seems like some linguistic interest would be a good quality for a statesman, especially one who does not already speak English. Most disputes, in world affairs as in life, come down to communication — things work better when we speak each other’s language.



Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets