The Languages of Our Leaders
We expect a lot from our world leaders. We want them to be incorruptible, selfless, and diplomatic—three qualities that, apparently, is a bit too much to demand of some of them, currently, but that’s a discussion for another time. We also want our leaders to lead by example; compassion, strength, and determination as more of the high-principled qualities we can all aspire to. But can we also expect our leaders to pave the way for broadening our language horizons, by demonstrating their own abilities to converse in numerous languages?
Here are some of our world leaders and the languages they speak.
Those that are predominantly monolingual
Unsurprisingly we can start that list with the President of the United States, Donald Trump, who only speaks English. He shares the monolingual title with Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, who speaks purely Korean, Emmerson Mnangagwa, President of Zimbabwe, who speaks only Shona, and Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, who speaks only Japanese.
And finally for this section is Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, who speaks only Mandarin, despite going to a prestigious Chinese university where he could have been instructed in English. His wife, however, First Lady Peng Liyuan, is fluent in English.
Since English is not the be all and end all of everything. Here are some leaders that speak multiple languages that aren’t English:
Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, speaks both Gujarati and Hindi. Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, speaks Turkish, and though he doesn’t like other languages infiltrating Turkish, speaks a dialect of Greek called Rumca, as well as some Arabic.
And finally, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, speaks German and learned Russian as a second language in school—the language of preference for foreign language education for much of Eastern Europe during communist times. Though Angela can also speak English and is competent enough to hold a conversation and give a speech, her preference for German is understandably prevalent.
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Leaders of countries with English as an official language
Theresa May, Prime Minister of UK, reportedly learned French in school, and has addressed a few speeches in both French and German, but is typically heard speaking in English only.
Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia, speaks English, but has also been learning the indigenous language Ngunnawal for a couple of years. This language is in danger of being wiped out altogether due to the small number of people who still speak it, so Malcolm opening his Australia Day speech in Ngunnawal was seen by some as a big deal.
Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, is bilingual. He speaks both French and English, and switches between the two with ease, addressing the European Commission, and a rally in Quebec in French one moment, and the rest of the English-speaking world in, well, English, the next.
And lastly, Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland, is amongst the polyglots of the leaders of our world. He speaks English, Irish, French, and German, and though there are some that mock his accent on occasion, four languages is pretty impressive no matter how poor an accent might be!
A sample from Europe
Paolo Gentiloni, Prime Minister of Italy, speaks both Italian and English—fluent enough to comfortably switch between the two during interviews and conversation.
Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece, unsurprisingly speaks Greek, and has also conducted various interviews in English. Though the more snooty amongst us like to titter at his accent because it isn’t perfect, it’s better to try than to not try at all, we think.
And finally, Emmanuel Macron, President of France, may be a fierce champion of the French language, but he’s also known for speaking meticulous English.
And some examples from the best of the rest!
Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, speaks Swahili, Kikuyu, and English. Kikuyu is the language of Uhuru’s mother, and his fluency in the language earns him the title of the last Kikuyu president.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, speaks Hebrew, and English with a Philadelphian accent given his high school education there. He has also given a number of speeches in Russian.
Saad al Hariri, Prime Minister of Lebanon, speaks Arabic, French, and English.
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Prime Minister of Pakistan, speaks Urdu and English.
And finally, Vladimir Putin, newly re-elected President of the Russian Federation, speaks Russian, English, and German. He has even helped translate conversations between Russian and German speakers during official meetings held in both Germany and Russia.
Whether you think the politics of these leaders are questionable or not, those bilingual and multilingual leaders on this list are clearly great examples of leading by language example, if nothing else. We hope they inspire you to look into learning a language yourself!