The List

Talking the Talk

A guide to world leaders who have overcome language barriers to rule.

After 540 days of negotiations, Belgium finally chose a government last week, just in time to help it address its mounting economic concerns. The leader to emerge from over a year of negotiations is 60-year-old Socialist  Elio Di Rupo, a Wallonian chemist who is also Belgium's first openly gay prime minister. The bowtie-wearing son of poor Italian immigrants, Di Rupo has had a long political career, and is known in the country as the "regent of the kingdom" because of his role in bridging the gap between Belgium's culturally diverse regions. The first French-speaking prime minister in nearly 40 years, Di Rupo's rise has highlighted Belgium's linguistic divides (the country has three official languages -- Dutch, French, and German -- with the majority speaking Dutch). Right out of the gate, Di Rupo faced questions about his Dutch after he botched an interview with a reporter due to language barriers.  Di Rupo assures supporters that he will "speak Dutch to parliament" and will seek to improve his language skills in the coming days.

Di Rupo isn't the only leader to confront linguistic challenges on the path to power. Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien did not know a single word of English when he left Francophone Quebec in 1967 to enter the halls of English-speaking Ottawa. More recently, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was born in Saudi Arabia and educated in French schools, had his linguistic baptism-by-fire during a mangled speech in Arabic in front of the Lebanese parliament. As for the United States, the last President not to have spoken English as their first language was Martin Van Buren  in 1837 (he spoke Dutch).

While many world leaders are well-versed in several languages (Portugal's Jose Manuel Barroso and Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, for starters) there are, of course, others who have faced the daunting task of governing while taking a crash course in the native tongue. Here are a few leaders who have trouble talking the talk.

Leader: Jacob Zuma
Native Language:
South Africa
Official National Languages:

Leading the "Rainbow Nation" isn't easy, nor is it a simple task picking up all 11 official languages of Africa's most dynamic state. South Africa's hodgepodge of languages and numerous dialects, a relic of its colonial past, complicate efforts to unify the country. English is the major language of business and commerce, and is gradually becoming the lingua franca, as the Economist noted earlier this year. For President Jacob Zuma, his English-language education coincides with his rise to power. Although he grew up speaking Zulu, the most widely spoken language in South Africa, his English language skills came in part from his travels around the country. He credits his time "staying with Indians in Greyville" and "playing with the White children" as part of his informal education. During his time at the notorious Robben Island prison, where he and other party leaders were detained, he credits reading Shakespeare, having debates about labor market theory, and other autodidactic activities as crucial to his political education.  

Name: Sonia Gandhi
Native Language:
Official Languages:
Hindi, English 

Sonia Gandhi's presence in Indian politics has been long complicated by the familial and cultural baggage she carries. The daughter of an Italian building contractor, she met her husband, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1965, while studying in England. Following his assassination in 1991, she initially refrained from entering into politics. By 1998, however, she had become the modern face of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. However, her rise was questioned by many who saw her Italian heritage and naturalized Indian citizen status as a liability. As India Today once put it, her language abilities included both "spaghetti English and accented Hindi," raising questions about how she could lead a country where both languages were becoming increasingly predominant. While she spent a good part of the 1970s learning about Indian culture, she and her son, Rahul, are not fluent speakers and face unrelenting criticism for their lack of mastery over the language.

Viktor Yanukovich, Mykola Azarov
Native Languages:
Official Languages:
Ukrainian, Russian

Ukraine, as a former Soviet republic, faces many questions about which direction it intends to take itself: west towards Washington, or east towards Moscow.  Like many of the other Soviet republics, its population spoke a native language alongside Russian, which was imposed by decades of Soviet leaders. Following the end of the Cold War, Ukraine turned to developing its national identity. Ukrainian, spoken by nearly 70 percent of the population, once again became the language of the people and government. However, it isn't the native language of either current President Viktor Yanukovich or Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. During the 2004 campaign, then-Prime Minister Yanukovich learned Ukrainian in order to better communicate with the electorate; he is of mixed Russian, Polish, and Belarusian descent. Similarly, Russian speaking Azarov grew up in Kaluga, and moved to Donetsk for work. While he claimed that he would learn Ukrainian prior to becoming prime minister, he has struggled with the language.

Leader: Evo Morales

Native Language: Aymara

Country: Bolivia

Official Language: Spanish

President Evo Morales' election broke barriers for long-oppressed minority groups in Bolivia, as he was the first Bolivian leader of indigenous decent to be elected to a country's highest office. He grew up amongst the Aymara people in the mountainous regions of Bolivia, speaking their eponymous language. As one of his biographies pointed out, he began to learn Spanish because it allowed him to "centralize communication." President Morales continues to fill his speeches with Quechua and Aymara phrases, and uses his language skills as a means to better indigenous rights in Bolivia.

King Abdullah II
Native Language
: English/French
Official Language: Arabic

King Abdullah II of Jordan faces ongoing criticisms of his rule, much of which is not helped by his difficulties with Arabic. As the son of the deceased King Hussein and his British wife, Muna al-Hussein, he grew up speaking both Arabic and English. However, due to political instability in Jordan, his father sent him away for schooling in England. In his autobiography, he says that Arabic was his first language, and that experiences in England and with a Swiss nanny gave him a British accent (and some knowledge of French).  However, opposition websites cite instances when he has delegated away his need to speak Arabic as a means to covering his inability to speak it. As Jordan weathered its own Arab Spring protests, some saw his difficulties with the language as proof that he is an "outsider."


The List

Newt vs. Newt

Gingrich's most outrageous foreign-policy flip-flops.

Newt Gingrich's emergence as the front-runner among the Republican presidential candidates has created a virtual cottage industry around chronicling his flip flops, whether through Ron Paul attack ads or analyses dissecting the "difference between MittFlops and NewtFlops." Gingrich, for his part, has fought back, regularly updating a section on his website dedicated to setting his positions on the issues straight. But given his back-and-forth record, it's not an easy task. Here are six instances in which Gingrich shifted his position on pressing foreign-policy issues.


"Putin really is a generation beyond the first reformers of the post-Soviet era. He understands that the future of Russia is inside some kind of capitalist system. He understands that Russia is not going to be a global competitor. Now, he's more authoritarian than I might like. But again, this is a country in dramatic transition. And when you look back 12 or 13 years, even his authoritarianism is remarkable, more open as a society than anything one could have dreamed as late as 1987 or 1988. So I think there you're likely to see an emerging continuing American-Russian friendship." - Feb. 28, 2002

"Putin represents a dictatorial approach that's very violent, it was violent in the Chechnyan situation, it is violent in, for example, stealing investment money back from oil companies in the Soviet Union -- Russia -- the former Soviet Union. Putin was a KGB agent and he has a lot of KGB behaviors. They went out of their way in the last week to take on a small neighbor and crush that neighbor militarily. It's a signal that he intends to assert authority around the periphery of Russia. - Aug. 16, 2008

Gingrich has a longstanding interest in the question of Russian democracy. In his memoir, Bill Clinton recalls that in 1993, the speaker was "passionately in favor of helping Russia, saying it was a "great defining moment" for the United States and that we had to do the right thing. "Newt was trying to 'out-Russia' me," wrote Clinton. But in a 2002 speech in Melbourne, Australia, Gingrich appeared taken in by the new Russian president and his promises of reform. In the summer of 2008, when Russia went to war with Georgia, Gingrich's take was drastically different. To be fair, he was hardly alone is his initial optimism about Putin. His remarks in 2002 came just a few months after President George W. Bush looked into Putin's eyes and famously "got a sense of his soul."


"I think it would be a tremendous mistake for the United States to start putting traitors on the negotiating table as a pawn, and I hope the administration will now say they will not, under any circumstance, release Pollard," - Oct. 24, 1998

"I am prepared to say my bias is towards clemency, and I would like to review it. He's been in [jail] a very long time. But we are pretty tough about people spying on the United States. And I also have a study under way to compare his sentence with comparable people who have been sentenced for very long sentences for comparable deeds." - Dec. 7, 2011

Gingrich appears to have had a change of heart about Pollard, a former civilian Navy intelligence analyst convicted of selling classified information to Israel in 1985 and currently serving a life sentence. Gingrich's original comments were made during the 1998 Wye River negotiations, when then-President Clinton offered to review Pollard's status as part of a land-for-security deal between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat. Israel has long requested Pollard's release.


"I think it's something we shouldn't do.... Lawyers I respect a great deal say it is absolutely within the law. Other lawyers say it absolutely is not. I mean, this is a debatable area." - April 26, 2009

"Waterboarding is, by every technical rule, not torture. Waterboarding is actually something we've done with our own pilots in order to get them used to the idea to what interrogation is like. It's not -- I'm not saying it's not bad, and it's not difficult, it's not frightening. I'm just saying that under the normal rules internationally it's not torture." - Nov. 29, 2011

Back in 2009, shortly have the release of memos from Bush's Office of Legal Counsel on waterboarding, Gingrich said he did not support the practice, though he refused to say whether or not it was torture. He did, however, describe himself as "exactly where Senator McCain was" on the practice. Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war, has always been vehemently opposed to waterboarding.

But in last month's foreign-policy debate, Gingrich was not so equivocal, saying that waterboarding is not considered torture under international law. (The U.N. doesn't agree.) McCain has said that he's "very disappointed" by the support for waterboarding among this year's candidates. 


"Exercise a no-fly zone this evening, communicate to the Libyan military that Qaddafi was gone and that the sooner they switch sides, the more like they were to survive, [and provide] help to the rebels to replace him.... This is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with." - March 7, 2011

"I would not have intervened. I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Qaddafi. I think there are a lot of other allies in the region we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces." - March 23, 2011

Gingrich initially opposed using military force in Libya, arguing in late February that if the United States simply made it clear to the Libyan military that "they had friends" in America, "you'd be surprised how rapidly they would shift sides" and "replace Qaddafi." He called for the United States to unilaterally impose a no-fly zone over Libya days later, only to criticize President Obama's intervention weeks after that. Gingrich rejected claims that he'd flip-flopped, explaining that what he opposed was the White House scuttling non-military options by declaring that Qaddafi must "go," only to then predicate the intervention on "humanitarian" grounds rather than the removal of Qaddafi.


"The weight of evidence [for global warming] over time [convinced me] that it's something that you ought to be careful about.... How do you design a pro-science and pro-technology strategy that lowers the amount of damage the human race does to the planet?" - Feb. 15, 2007

"I actually don't know whether global warming is occurring.... The earth's temperatures go up and down over geologic times over and over again. As recently as 11,000 years ago the Gulf Stream quit for 600 years. And for 600 years you had an ice age in Europe because there was no warm water coming up. And then it started up again. Nobody knows why it quit, nobody knows why it started up. I'm agnostic." - Nov. 9, 2011

Gingrich has a complicated relationship with climate change that stretches back to 1989, when he co-sponsored the Global Warming Prevention Act. The former House speaker expressed support for a cap-and-trade system in 2007 but turned against the scheme a year later, and has called his decision to appear with Nancy Pelosi in a 2008 ad urging government action on climate change "the dumbest single thing I've done in the last few years." Even with these shifts in position, however, Gingrich has consistently argued that conservatives must offer innovative, market-based environmental solutions and that there is evidence on both sides of the climate-change debate.


"The American people want an effective United Nations that can fulfill the goals of its Charter in building a safer, freer, and more prosperous world.... What was most striking was the extent to which we were able to find common ground, including on our most important finding, which was 'the firm belief that an effective United Nations is in America's interests'" - June 15, 2005 (report by task force co-chaired by Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell)

"We should be willing to say that if the U.N. is going to circumvent negotiations and declare the territory of one of its own members an independent state, we aren't going to pay for it. We can keep our $7.6 billion a year. We don't need to fund a corrupt institution to beat up on our allies." - Aug. 10, 2011

Gingrich condemned the United Nations this fall during the Palestinian bid for statehood, but back in 2005 he co-chaired a task force on U.N. reform -- a cause he has long championed. While the report did call for the abolition of the U.N. Human Rights Commission and criticized U.N. institutions for failing to protect victims of genocide around the world, Foreign Policy pointed out in August that the task force recommended remedying these issues in part by increasing funding for U.N. institutions.

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