Who speaks what?
August 21, 2007 7:23 AM   Subscribe

Which famous people speak/have spoken other languages?

I'm on a bit of a language trip at the moment (in both senses), and I'm wondering about the linguistic abilities of famous people, alive and dead. However my google-fu has failed me, I've found out which languages the Presidential candidates speak (apparently Obama speaks Malay, who knew?), but otherwise I've drawn a blank.
Anyone know if the resource I'm looking for exists?
posted by greytape to Writing & Language (46 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
did you mean famous people that spoke second languages?

Tons probably do, as squid has said

arnold probably speaks german or austrian or whatever it is they speak where he came from
posted by Salvatorparadise at 7:31 AM on August 21, 2007


I was impressed to learn that the native tongue of Hungarian-born philanthropist / businessman George Soros was actually Esperanto! Probably one of the few people on Earth to be able to make the claim. I assume he spoke Hungarian as a kid as well, and he speaks English now, but evidently his father was a big Esperanto supporter and brought him up with that language as his primary one.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:38 AM on August 21, 2007


W speaks Spanish.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:41 AM on August 21, 2007


Multilingual celebrities. Never heard of some of the people mentioned there, but there are some good suggestions.
posted by afx237vi at 7:42 AM on August 21, 2007


The Holy Roman Emperor Charles the V said "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse".

I expect most famous people outside of America in the last 2 centuries will have spoken a foreign language, since if you're from, say, Belgium, it's not easy to get famous inside of Belgium. So for example all famous scientists and athletes in the last century spoke English or, if they worked within the Soviet bloc, Russian. The only people outside of the English-speaking world who don't speak English are people who stayed put and didn't get famous.
posted by creasy boy at 7:44 AM on August 21, 2007


Angela Kinsey from The Office also speaks Malay (or Indonesian, which is basically the same).
posted by mpls2 at 7:50 AM on August 21, 2007


Here's a rather small list from the National Centre for Languages in the UK. It links to a small spreadsheet of other names. I don't know how reliable it is, though: "Oscar-winning Hollywood star Charlize Theron learned many of the 28 languages she speaks from the staff on her parents' farm." 28?
posted by pracowity at 7:52 AM on August 21, 2007


The Popes tend to speak multiple languages. IIRC, John Paul II was fluent in 10 or so languages.
posted by jmd82 at 7:57 AM on August 21, 2007


If this helps, one of my pet peeves is reading about how someone (the pope and the dalai lama come to mind) speak multiple languages. Now listen to these people speak one of the many languages and you'll see they're not fluent at all, but their biographers (who are pretty biased in their favor) often claim fluency in 5+ languages. In real life I've found fluency in more than 3 languages is extremely rare.

So take a lot of this with a grain of salt.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:57 AM on August 21, 2007


Tony Blair has pretty good French as I recall, and could use it even in an official capacity when addressing our cross-channel neighbours. I also heard former UK politico Paddy "Pantsdown" Ashdown (now with NATO isn't it?) speaks Chinese. Wiki claims fluent, but I'm not sure it's that good.
posted by Abiezer at 7:58 AM on August 21, 2007


Yes, I meant second (and indeed third, fourth) languages. I am aware of the concept of foreign people.
posted by greytape at 7:59 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Here's another small list. Albert Einstein spoke German, Italian, and English. Noam Chomsky speaks Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. Shakira speaks Spanish, English, Arabic, Portuguese, and Italian.
posted by pracowity at 8:03 AM on August 21, 2007


I've heard an interview with Peter Ustinov in Russian and he seemed totally at ease (but I have a very limited understanding of Russian.) He is meant to be able to chat away quite fluently in a number of languages and from what I've seen of excerpts of him in French and German that is the case.

/derail (While it is very rare to be "fluent" in multiple languages, some very gifted individuals can do it. I remember my Uni Prof for Spanish who spoke very colloquially in 11 languages. In the 4 I could chat to him in, he was totally comfortable ( Sp, Catalan, Portugues, German). At meeting of our School of Languages, I heard him chat to colleagues in 5 other native languages and again, no hesitations While this does not define fluency, it was an admitable level of mastery of the spoken language.? -derail over
posted by Wilder at 8:10 AM on August 21, 2007


This isn't helping you with your apparent actual question of 'where is there an online list of these famous folk who speak more than one language', but: once-a-comedian-but-now-apparently-an-actor Eddie Izzard speaks French to the point where he famously did stand-up routines in that language. I imagine that takes quite some fluency.
posted by thoughtless at 8:16 AM on August 21, 2007


Jodi Foster attended Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles and speaks fluent French.
posted by kajj at 8:21 AM on August 21, 2007


While it is very rare to be "fluent" in multiple languages, some very gifted individuals can do it.

You speak from a very narrow world view.

English would be my fourth language, since I only began to learn it at school when I was 12, and Frisian, Dutch, and German came first. But really, anyone from a minority group in a small country who'll got an education will speak at least four languages.

Monolingualism really is extremely rare when you look at the whole picture of the world. Even though it's absurdly common on the English spoken parts of the internet, I grant you that.
posted by ijsbrand at 8:21 AM on August 21, 2007


Supposedly, all of these famous people speak some other languages, but I'll be damned if I know what they are.
posted by pracowity at 8:23 AM on August 21, 2007


I would assume that pretty much anyone who's been through a European educational system in the last many decades would speak a second language. Americans who don't speak a second language are more of the exception from a global perspective.

Also, The Queen speaks fluent French and often uses the language for Audiences and State Visits. Her Majesty does not require an interpreter.

(I think I remember reading that she studied French to the point of being qualified to be an official interpreter herself, but I don't have time to research that tidbit right now.)
posted by gimonca at 8:42 AM on August 21, 2007


In real life I've found fluency in more than 3 languages is extremely rare.

I have to disagree with this. While this may be true in America, it is not for much of the rest of the world. My dad spoke seven languages and was fluent in at least five, and I have known many, many people fluent in more than three. Which makes the original question far too broad to answer, in my opinion. Maybe the poster should define what kind of celebrity he or she means?

posted by CunningLinguist at 8:43 AM on August 21, 2007


I expect most famous people outside of America in the last 2 centuries will have spoken a foreign language, since if you're from, say, Belgium, it's not easy to get famous inside of Belgium. So for example all famous scientists and athletes in the last century spoke English or, if they worked within the Soviet bloc, Russian. The only people outside of the English-speaking world who don't speak English are people who stayed put and didn't get famous.

This is just drivel, it's entirely possible to get famous without being famous in the English speaking world, just as one can be famous in one part of the English speaking world and not in other parts. For example, there will be plenty of American celebs who are unknown in the UK, and vice versa. Most countries will have their own well known TV presenters, artists, writers etc. Someone could also be famous in what is primarily a non-English speaking country even if one does speak English - Bollywood film stars come to mind.

Other interesting data points: Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi all achieving a level of fame first in their home markets then in the global market without - at least initially - speaking English. (All used phonetic speech in early roles in Hollywood films.)
posted by biffa at 8:54 AM on August 21, 2007


We also have to figure out what is a language. I don't want to make a "they're really only dialects" comment, but if you speak French,say, it can't be that difficult to pick up most other Romance languages with the exception of Romanian. I'm not saying buy a book and you'll be fluent in a week, but it is much easier than a French speaker trying German or English. If you speak Danish, you almost by default speak or understand Swedish or Norwegian. I suppose that Ukrainian and Russian, are closer to each other than, say California and Liverpool English are.

So, yeah, I think it is rather hard to speak more than three "language sets". Bravo to those who can.

I suspect that one of the reasons, besides any political or psychic issues on the part of native speakers, why native English speakers tend to be monolingual is that English is sort of a "language set of one" - Germanic, but a radically changed and simplified grammar and with so much Norman French that it has a foot in romance languages too, but neither group has a language that would be easy for an English speaker to learn in the way that a French speaker can learn Spanish or a Polish speaker can learn Russian.
posted by xetere at 9:01 AM on August 21, 2007




W speaks Spanish.

Has this really been confirmed, beyond rudimentary conversation? I know he and his handlers like to trot this factoid out, but I've never seen him actually speak it. Considering he barely has mastery over his native English tongue, I'm dubious.
posted by mkultra at 9:16 AM on August 21, 2007


Peter Ustinov spoke English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Russian, fluently, as well as some Turkish and modern Greek. He was proficient in accents and dialects in all his languages.
posted by adamvasco at 9:23 AM on August 21, 2007


Sandra Bullock speaks fluent German.
posted by KathyK at 9:33 AM on August 21, 2007


I suppose that Ukrainian and Russian, are closer to each other than, say California and Liverpool English are.


Derail, but that's not true at all. A Russian cannot generally speak Ukrainian, even though s/he may understand it tolerably well.
posted by nasreddin at 9:34 AM on August 21, 2007


related to Obama, a recent Language Log post: The Linguistic Abilities of the Presidential Candidates.
posted by dropkick queen at 9:51 AM on August 21, 2007


I know dozens of people who are absolutely fluent in four or more languages, and many of them can speak passably in as many more. As I write this from a terrace beer garden in Romanian, I've struck up a conversation with five "skate punk" types, all under the age of 20, to ask them about their languages. They are all fluent in Hungarian (their native tongue), Romanian and English, with one of them speaking fair German as well, and another with some Ukrainian. Fluency in three languages is common in many places, like here in Transylvania. (I've met several Rom who speak six languages fluently and never went to school!)

I'm fluent in languages from three "language sets" - Slavic (Serbo-Croatian, but also good Russian), Romance (French, with good Spanish and Italian) and Germanic (English and German.) In addition to those, I speak reasonable Hungarian, which isn't an Indo-European language (and I'm actively studying it at the moment, though fluency may be a year or two away), and I can say with confidence that I will be very close to fluency in Romanian by the end of the year. (It's a Romance language, but quite different from the rest in many ways, grammatically and in terms of vocabulary.) That's nine languages I could hold most sorts of conversation in, and I know large bits of others. I like languages and have some talent, but not nearly as much as many people I know.

I mention this to point out that it isn't actually hard to become fluent in multiple languages. Americans tend to lack the drive to do it - it's the only place I've been where it's normal to hear people say that they don't have any interest in learning a foreign language, and the only place where many people are never in an educational setting where they must learn even a little. America also provides little opportunity to learn languages when they're simple to learn, in the early years of school. And Americans have less exposure to cultures where English is not spoken, and travel less than most people from developed countries - especially outside their borders.

For a person who speaks (say) Italian, there are some advantages in learning another Romance language. But there are disadvantages, too. Italians I know who've tried to learn Romanian have trouble with some slight distinctions that a non-native Romance language speaker like me glosses over. The comment that we have to "figure out what is a language" is fair enough, but absurd when it's implied that French and other Romance languages aren't actually different languages. The mistake in this sort of assumption is that, if English is in a set of one (which it isn't - try Frisian!, but . . .) it's simply too hard to learn another language is just bosh. It's easier for an English speaker to learn French than for a Portuguese speaker to learn Romanian in all likelihood. And in any case, it isn't that hard to learn most languages. The statement implies that English-speakers TRY to learn other languages and can't - but when one looks at the statistics, one finds that many English speakers have simply never tried. And it fails to take into consideration the fact that many native French, Italian, Spanish, German (etc) speakers are actually fluent in second and third languages *outside* their language set - like me. (In other words, as a native Serbo-Croatian speaker, it may actually BE easier for me to learn Polish or Czech. But the fact of the matter is that for the most part, I've learned languages outside the Slavic branch.) And don't forget that English is probably harder to learn (from, say, a Martian standpoint) than most IE languages. So if the Lithuanians can learn it, you can learn Lithuanian (etc).

Also, Chomsky admits "proficiency" in only one language. And Charlize Theron herself says that she can speak Afrikaans, English and "a little" Xhosa - which is a far cry from the 28 languages claimed in one link.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:56 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


By the way, sorry for the very large derail! My Spanish-speaking friends have told me the "fact" that George W Bush speaks Spanish is absurd, and that he stumbles through it with a sort of second-year in high school level. I've not heard him say enough in Spanish to judge for myself, which may by itself say something. And Mia Sorvino is supposedly fluent in Mandarin.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:01 AM on August 21, 2007


Ludwig Wittgenstein was fluent in English in addition to his native German, and in fact became similarly proficient in Russian -- he was at the time enamored of (what he thought to be) the soviet work ethic.

Bertrand Russell was raised as an English aristocrat, and as such learned Latin and Greek at a very young age. Some of his earliest philosophical writings are in Greek, having been composed for practice in his workbook. He also learned several other languages later in life, though I do not know to what degree of proficiency.

That's all I can think of at the moment. It's not something I've thought to pay much attention to. Very interesting question.
posted by voltairemodern at 10:01 AM on August 21, 2007


Conrad and Nabokov also spring to mind as creating great literature in second (or was it even third?) languages.
posted by Abiezer at 10:22 AM on August 21, 2007


Ayn Rand. Sorry.
posted by of strange foe at 11:04 AM on August 21, 2007


The mention of W reminds me of Univision making an open invitation to all presidential candidates to participate in a spanish language presidential debate. Richardson and maybe one other accepted. I don't know what they were out to prove by making the invitation though. Basically, all the candidates who are qualified to participate in a spanish language debate (that is, Richardson, who I think grew up bilingual) did accept. But still, extremely low level of bilingualism here in the US, and people's refusal to accept that Spanish is already an important US language, and ever increasingly so, is a bit ridiculous. Also, sorry to editorialize. But it closely relates to what others have said, that anyone famous from a non-english-speaking country or region is likely multilingual, and a good many of them in their native language(s) and english.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 11:28 AM on August 21, 2007


To elaborate on kajj's contribution: I've read that Jodie Foster does her own dubbing for French versions of her movies.
posted by Lord Kinbote at 12:03 PM on August 21, 2007


Jodi Foster attended Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles and speaks fluent French.

Indeed. Check out her performance as Élodie Gordes in the French movie Un long dimanche de finançailles (released in English as A Very Long Engagement.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:03 PM on August 21, 2007


Vladimir Nabokov, while being a native Russian speaker, wrote quite well in English, Lolita being the prime example.
Kazuo Ishiguro is another example of someone who was born speaking one language, yet writes tremendously well in another.
posted by msali at 12:13 PM on August 21, 2007


it's not easy to get famous inside of Belgium

Er... just want to add to the voices pointing out how patently absurd this is. Every country has its own famous people, just because *you* don't know who the famous people are in Belgium (/France/Germany/Papua New Guinea etc) doesn't mean that there are none.

More constructively, google multi lingual celebrities and you'll find a few lists.
posted by penguin pie at 12:25 PM on August 21, 2007


Conrad and Nabokov also spring to mind as creating great literature in second (or was it even third?) languages.

Nabokov was raised in a trilingual household (Russian, English, and French), so in a sense each of these languages was native to him. As an adult, he acquired enough German, as he put it, "to read newspapers".
posted by trip and a half at 1:00 PM on August 21, 2007


Haven't found Lucinda Ruh (Swiss national figure skating champion in the 90s and early 00s) on any of these lists, so maybe she doesn't qualify as famous, but she speaks fluent German and French, coloquial American English and is actually a native Japanese speaker (grew up there).
posted by nax at 3:31 PM on August 21, 2007


To tie into the second comment about George Soros speaking Esperanto - William Shatner acts in the only Esperanto film made - Incubus: "I did it phonetically, but because I had the English script on one side and the Esperanto on the other, I kind of acquired the language in the best tradition of Berlitz, where they force-feed it to you. And I desperately had to know what I was doing in a very minimal amount of time, so I was Esperanto-ized."
posted by meech at 5:36 PM on August 21, 2007


You speak from a very narrow world view.

Nonsense. It is rare for people to be fluent in multiple languages. Being able to carry on colloquial conversations easily doesn't make you fluent. I can chat happily in French and Spanish, but I'd never dream of claiming fluency. Can you discuss finance, geography, flora and fauna, space exploration, poetry in each language? Do you recognize archaic idioms and literary quotes and proverbs in each language? Chatting is easy, fluency is hard.
posted by languagehat at 5:42 PM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


I know Aishwarya Rai speaks Tulu, Hindi and English, and according to Wikipedia she also speaks Marathi, Tamil, and Kannada. And she was in Chokher Bali, which was in Bengali. That means she's acted in at least four languages (Tamil, English, Hindi and Bengali).

There are a lot of other Bollywood actors who speak multiple languages - almost all of them speak English as well as Hindi, and then frequently a native language as well.
posted by bijou at 9:28 PM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Chatting is easy, fluency is hard.

'Fluency' is a slippery concept (pun intended).

Functional (if not 'fluent' as LH characterizes is) multilingualism is the default human mode, for most of the people in the world (and the original poster didn't ask about fluency, anyway).

This question is a little like asking 'which famous people had siblings'? The answer is probably 'most of them'.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:13 AM on August 22, 2007


(Sorry for not adding much in the way of a specific answer -- just trying to explain why I reckon it's not really all that answerable.)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:14 AM on August 22, 2007


thank LH, my hero! From a linguistic perspective fluency mean what LH says, the native level ability to disuss any and all topics, but really, to be frank, that sometimes is as much a fucntion of education, class, verbal facility..... I still hesitate about claiming fluency in one of the languages I speak despite the fact that every Spaniard I've spoken to believes I'm from Leon or the Basque country. I feel someone, somewhere will want to discuss a topic I have zero interest in and therefore never acquired the vocab, say American Football, and then I would be outed.

But if by fluency you are talking about the ability as Spanish puts it "para defenderte" (pues lo tenemos muchos) then I accept your point completely. Most Dutch people I know have 4+ languages with this level of "fluency".

Again to go back to the Aswari Rai example, you will find many educated individuals in India with 4+, although you may then start in on the "what is dialect and what is language" debate.
posted by Wilder at 2:11 AM on August 22, 2007


Edward Norton is a Japanese speaker and worked for his grandfather's company in Japan.
posted by Alison at 6:42 AM on August 22, 2007


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