At a 2008 campaign stop in Dayton, Ohio, Barack Obama said in front of a town hall meeting, I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing!
That statement may not have been entirely true; back in 1997, Obama told a reporter for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin that he had picked up some Bahasa Indonesia while he lived on the Southeast Asian archipelago as a child.
I also speak a barely passable Spanish, he went on, according to an excerpt posted on Volokh.com; the 15-year-old article has been removed from the website of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Obama also said that he had a smattering of Swahili, because my father was from Kenya.
The statements are at odds: was Obama exaggerating his language skills in 1997, or did he downplay them in 2008?
The then-candidate may have denied his abilities in Dayton in order to refute opponents' accusations about his allegiances. He'd been accused of being born on foreign soil, giving up his U.S. citizenship to live in Indonesia, and secretly practicing Islam. He was even criticized for having the middle name 'Hussein.'
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He'd also recently come under fire for suggesting that Americans learn more languages. Three days before the Dayton appearance, he stopped in Georgia and said, It's embarrassing when 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?
Americans for Legal Immigration pounced on the statement, saying Obama had stepped on a political landmine by stating Americans should be forced to learn to speak Spanish, according to CBS News.
All this considered, it seems Obama had good reason to play down his linguistic abilities in 2008; conservatives would have disparaged his abilities in Spanish, Swahili, and Bahasa Indonesia.
But today, the web is abuzz with evidence of one rather unexpected linguistic skill: sign language.
On Tuesday, Obama greeted a deaf student at an event in Largo, Maryland. When the 26-year-old signed I'm proud of you, the president quickly signed back a Thank you. The exchange can be watched below.
Obama had previously used his American Sign Language abilities on the campaign trail, reports Salon. But that was years ago, and many people didn't know about his skill until the March 15 video went viral.
The deaf student, reports Distriction, was elated. Oh my gosh! he signed in a video later posted to YouTube. I was like wow! He understood me after I said I was proud of him. It was so amazing. I was just speechless.