Foreign Languages

8 American Celebrities You Didn’t Know Spoke a Foreign Language

Dictionaries by Mickangel

My friend Tyler used to have a quote on her Facebook profile that read:

“What do you call someone who speaks three languages?

A trilingual.

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

A bilingual.

What do you call someone who speaks one language?

An American.”

Though funny, that joke isn’t entirely fair. According to Wikipedia, there are 45 million people living in the US that speak Spanish as a first or second language and a 2001 Gallop poll found that one in four Americans can speak a foreign language well enough to hold their own in a conversation.

But nevertheless, despite the statistics, there are still many Americans whose foreign language skills don’t extend much beyond Spanglish. You might therefore be surprised to learn that the following eight actors, singers and politicians not only speak one foreign language but as many as five.

8.  Jon Heder

Jon Heder
Jon Heder by Chris Weeks

The star of the film Napolean Dynamite is Mormon and spent two years doing mission work in Japan, where he learned to speak Japanese fluently.

7.  Kelley Clarkson

Born in Texas but raised by a Greek mother, the ‘Miss Independent’ singer speaks fluent Greek.

6.  Bill Clinton

Perhaps it isn’t surprising, but this Yale graduate and former US Prez studied German in college and speaks it conversationally.  What is surprising, however, is that despite having grown up abroad, current US president Barack Obama is to his chagrin, monolingual.  “It’s embarrassing!” CBS quoted him to saying.  “Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?”

5.  Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman speaks Japanese

The Star Wars star was born in Israel, holds dual citizenship in America and Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew.  A Harvard alum who was once voted “most likely to be on Jeopardy” by her high school senior class, Natalie is one smart thespian.  In addition to studying French and German, Natalie speaks some Japanese and Arabic as well.

4.  Sandra Bullock

Though the academy award-winning actress was born in Virginia, her mother was a German opera singer.  Sandra spent much of her childhood touring Europe with her mother and staying with her grandmother in Nuremberg, Germany.  Watch her rattle off her acceptance speech in German at an awards show in Germany. Her German is flawless.

3.  Gwyneth Paltrow

Many may have watched Gywneth play a substitute Spanish teacher on the TV show Glee, but what many may not have known is that the Spanish Gywneth spoke on the show wasn’t faked.  Gywneth spent a year studying abroad in Spain in high school and though not completely fluent, she’s quite good.  She even regularly speaks to her daughter, Apple, in Spanish. ” ‘Agua’ was her first word,” Gywneth told reporters.   “She says a lot of words in Spanish, I speak to her in Spanish sometimes because I want her to learn.”

2.  Mila Kunis

While at a press conference for her film Friends with Benefits, Mila famously yelled at a reporter in Russian (her first language).  Born in Ukraine, Mila moved to Los Angeles when she was seven.  You can watch the clip below.

1.  Bradley Cooper

You’d never know it from the irresponsible, binge-drinking womanizer he played in the Hang-Over films, but Bradley Cooper graduated from Georgetown University, where he learned to speak French fluently.  He even studied abroad for a semester in France. Here’s a clip of him speaking French in an interview for a French talk-show.

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5 thoughts on “8 American Celebrities You Didn’t Know Spoke a Foreign Language

  1. HELLO REANNON,

    YOUR BLOGS ARE VERY INTERESTING. REALLY ENJOY THEM!

    AS TO BRADLEY COOPER SPEAKING “PERFECT FRENCH”, I CAN DO THAT WELL IF NOT EVEN BETTER, AND I KNOW THAT MY FRENCH IS A LONG WAY FROM BEING PERFECT. FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, I HAVE NEVER EVEN SO MUCH AS HEARD OF BRADLEY COOPER, BUT THEN HE HAS DOUBTLESS NEVER HEARD OF ME EITHER.

    THE LITTLE JOKE THAT STARTED YOUR BLOG AS TO WHAT A PERSON WHO SPEAKS ONE LANGUAGE IS CALLED IS QUITE FUNNY IN ITS WAY, MOSTLY BECAUSE IT RINGS TRUE SO MUCH OF THE TIME. IT REMINDS ME OF WHAT FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH SAID TO A REPORTER AS HE WAS STANDING OUTSIDE HIS FAMILY’S KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE COMPOUND A FEW YEARS AGO WAITING FOR THE PRESIDENT OF FRANCE, NICOLAS SARKOZY, TO ARRIVE. WHEN ASKED BY A REPORTER WHETHER HE WAS GOING TO SPEAK FRENCH WITH SARKOZY, HE REPLIED, “WHO? ME? I CAN BARELY SPEAK ENGLISH.”

    I GET BY PRETTY TOLERABLY IN EIGHT LANGUAGES (ENGLISH BEING ONE OF THEM) AND CAN READ A DOZEN LANGUAGES QUITE WELL. I AM GEARING UP TO ADD PORTUGUESE AND RUSSIAN AND A FEW MORE TO THE LIST, ALTHOUGH I WOULD ENJOY TRYING SOMETHING MORE EXOTIC LIKE HUNGARIAN OR FINNISH, OR SOME ORIENTAL LANGUAGES, OF WHICH I KNOW NONE SO FAR.

    KIND REGARDS, AND KEEP THOSE INTERESTING BLOGS COMING!

    NEIL CAMERON / 6443

  2. G’day Reannon

    I happened upon your article and am also fascinated by the lack of language skills that native born Americans posess. I had a very dear Uncle with whom I grew close over the years who would smile and nod when people spoke to him in other languages. I often thought he was just being kind. It was not till later I came to recognize he may not be able to converse in more then four languages but he understood the spoken word in at least as many more. Born in Russian Armenia his family fled first to Egypt where he attended school for four years and was introduced to both Egyptian and French. From there the family moved on to Cuba which was at that time a valid jump off point for an eventual move into Canada. While in Cuba he was able to adapt to Spanish quickly and continued to enhance his grasp of French. His time in Cuba was during what we would call high school or primary school. He was now able to read, write and converse in Armenian, Russian, Egyptian, French and Spanish and was only 16 years old. By the way his math skills were also far beyond the norm. He often joked that math was the only constant in his life. In the early 50’s his family immigrated to Quebec where he was able to attend the university for several years. It was here he began to acquire English skills. He often said he was compelled to learn so many languages his mind had trained itself to open up and accept new things more easily then most. Several years later prepared with an electrical engineering degree he came to the US. Once here and still a young man he enlisted in the military where he traveled the world with the US Air Force. While stationed in Japan he became fluent in the language and often joked it was the simplest of all languages to speak and understand yet the most difficult to read and write. During this time in the military he also became a US citizen. He was then able to sponsor his parents and only sibling, a nurse, from Canada into the US. What was a lifetime plan had finally come together. I was there the day his parents and sister took their oath. I saw what it meant to them. Even as a youngster I could feel the emotion radiate from them. What started as a large family fleeing their homeland had been reduced to just them four. Politics, illness and age had widdled down dozens to just these four. Even back then I hoped it was not too late to try to rebuild that amazingly strong family. Thinking back he spoke to his parents in Armenian, to some older very shading friends in Russian (they were attorneys not gangsters but we never really talked about them) and friends from our area of New Jersey who would converse with him in Spanish. His Egyptian was minimal and he struggled to even read a menu at a restaurant in NYC. He was however able to understand the waiters descriptions of each item. His French was much better then he let on. I found French magazines and dailies in his office (without pictures). I recall stopping by his business one day and showing friends all the different newspapers and magazines in many different languages lying around. In his later life he managed a successful international small business. I recall stopping by and finding him in his office raising his voice. I sat quietly listening because I knew this was out of character for him. When he emerged from his office he was clearly not happy. He took a deep breadth and smiled and said that moving a portion of his manufacturing to China may have been a mistake. I thought to myself was he just speaking Chinese? He cleared that up by saying it was Mandarin and he had been picking up pieces of the language over the years to the point now he now able to converse freely in it as well. Since we were only 12 years apart in age my wife and I often went to dinner with he and my Aunt in NYC. Each visit was an experience. From Little Italy, China town, French and Russian restaurants in midtown to a host of different places all the way out to Queens and to the tip of Brooklyn we would sample all the different foods from around the world. When someone at the table can speak the language of the servers the level of attention and I believe the quality of the foods improves drastically. The man was comfortable around so many different peoples it opened up doors the average person would never dream even existed. I can only hope one day our educators are given the tools and our students recognize the value of being at least bilingual. Thank you for the article it brought back fond memories of a man I admired and came to understand just how lucky I was to have him as part of my life. In closing there is so much more to this man I haven’t touched upon. However I have taken up far too much space. I hope you enjoyed knowing your article was able to bring back fond memories to this old man. Thank you.

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