Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, would be the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to be fluent in another language besides English.
Buttigieg is proficient in 7 languages other than English: Norwegian, French, Spanish, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, and Dari. However, Buttigieg has clarified he is not currently fluent in all of these languages; For example, he has mentioned on the campaign trail that his skill with Arabic and Dari has become “rusty” due to lack of practice.
But he has displayed his Spanish-language skills more since the Iowa and New Hampshire races. In the final days before the Nevada primary, he released a campaign ad in Spanish. The video is embedded below.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Pete Buttigieg Learned Norwegian in Order to Read Books by Author Erlend Loe in the Original Form
The story of how Pete Buttigieg learned to speak Norwegian went viral after a post was shared on Reddit in mid-March of 2019 by a user who had met Buttigieg in Texas. The post explained that when Buttigieg was introduced to Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad, he began speaking with her in fluent Norwegian.
Americans are predominantly monolingual and even if they do speak another language, it’s most likely to be Spanish. Buttigieg’s sudden dip into Norwegian clearly came as a surprise.
Buttigieg reportedly explained that he had become interested in learning the language after reading a translated copy of a book by novelist Erlend Loe. Buttigieg wanted to read more of the author’s works, but none had been translated into English. Buttigieg said he committed himself to learn Norwegian in order to consume more of Loe’s books.
Asne Seierstad told the BBC that Buttigieg speaks with a “South Bend accent” but described his Norwegian language skills as “excellent.”
2. Mayor Pete’s Father, Joseph Buttigieg, Was an Immigrant From Malta
Pete Buttigieg’s conversational skills in Maltese are much easier to explain: he would have learned it from his father. Joseph Buttigieg was born on May 20, 1947, on the island of Malta. Malta is located in the central Mediterranean sea between Sicily and North Africa.
The elder Buttigieg, who passed away shortly after his son announced he was running for president in early January of 2019, spent more than two decades of his life on Malta. He earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Malta, according to his obituary. He also had a degree from Heythrop College in Oxford, England and moved to the United States to pursue his doctorate from the State University of New York in Binghamton.
3. Pete Buttigieg’s Mother, Anne Montgomery, Is a Linguist Who Taught at Notre Dame For Nearly 30 Years
Montgomery was teaching at the New Mexico State University in 1976, which is where she met Joseph Buttigieg. The couple moved to South Bend in the early 1980s and both taught at the University of Notre Dame. Montgomery was a professor at Notre Dame for 29 years before retiring. She also has a master’s in fine arts from the school, which she earned in 1991.
4. Buttigieg is a War Veteran & Learned Arabic & Dari
Pete Buttigieg is a war veteran. He served for 7 months in Afghanistan as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The deployment took place during his first mayoral term.
According to Newsweek, Buttigieg learned to speak Dari while he was in the Middle East. Dari is one of the two official Persian dialects spoken in Afghanistan. Buttigieg studied Arabic in college and may have been exposed to it while overseas as well. (Buttigieg did acknowledge that his Arabic and Dari skills had become “rusty” during an interview on MSNBC).
The New York Times published an excerpt of his memoir, “Shortest Way Home,” in which he talked about what it was like to return to South Bend after serving in the war and how he came to publicly acknowledge his sexuality. The excerpt casually mentions that he is multilingual. “On my 33rd birthday, I was starting my fourth year as the mayor of a sizable city. I had served in a foreign war and dined with senators and governors. I had seen the Red Square and the Great Pyramids of Giza, knew how to order a sandwich in seven languages, and was the owner of a large historic home on the St. Joseph River. But I had absolutely no idea what it was like to be in love.”
5. Early American Leaders Were Multilingual But Franklin D. Roosevelt Was the Most Recent President to Be Fluent in More Than One Language
Recent American presidents are not known for their broad language skills. Since 1945, all of the commanders-in-chief have been fluent in one language only: English.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last person to occupy the Oval Office who could be considered fluent in more than one language. He reportedly learned French and German as a child. Bill Clinton studied German and Jimmy Carter is conversational in Spanish, according to Mashable, but neither became fluent.
Early United States presidents were more proficient with languages. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, he could speak French, Italian and Latin. John Adams and James Monroe were reportedly fluent in French.