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."



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