Does Melania Trump really speak five languages? Maybe not, suggests a new biography
“Grazie”, “hello” and “my name is Melania” are the extent to which Melania Trump has been heard using her self-proclaimed multilingual abilities, a biographer and others have found.
Even some Melania Trump critics thought Bette Midler was out of line to poke fun at the immigrant first lady’s accent when she delivered her speech at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday.
After Midler tweeted, “Oh my God. She still can’t speak English,” Melania Trump fans blasted the artist for xenophobia. They also sought to defend the Slovenian-born first lady by repeating the popular claim that she is fluent in multiple languages.
“She speaks five languages,” tweeted right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza and many others.
She speaks five languages. Bette Midler still has a ways to go with a https://t.co/9LTBL0hGbG
— Dinesh D’Souza (@DineshDSouza)
August 26, 2020
A Twitter user even claimed that President Donald Trump’s wife is fluent in six languages.
Midler apologized on Wednesday, tweeting that she was wrong to make fun of Melania Trump’s accent and saying “America is made up of people who speak with all kinds of accents.”
But her tweet had already reignited the debate over Melania Trump’s immigration story. It also brought to light questions about whether the first lady really speaks five (or six) languages.
A Washington Post reporter’s biography of the first lady, published in June, and other reports explored whether Melania Trump is truly fluent in anything other than her native Slovenian and acquired English. The first lady said she also speaks French, Italian and German.
Mary Jordan, the author of “The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump,” wrote that she was unable to independently confirm the extent of Melania Trump’s language skills.
“I couldn’t find any video showing that she is fluent in anything other than Slovenian and English,” Jordan wrote. “I asked the White House if they could point to any evidence, and they didn’t respond.”
Jordan reported in her book that Melania Trump had been seen relying on interpreters during diplomatic visits to Italy and France. Videos of those visits show the first lady using a few basic, universally known words such as “hello” and “ciao” when meeting European dignitaries or when visiting children in hospitals and schools.
Melania Trump’s White House biography does not list fluency in multiple languages among her accomplishments, which otherwise include being “a very successful role model,” traveling with her husband, visiting children and launching her Be Best campaign for promote the well-being of children.
The future first lady was born Melania Knauss in Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia, in 1970. She first moved to Milan in the early 1990s to pursue a modeling career, then came to the United States in 1996.
The idea that Melania Trump speaks multiple languages dates back to at least 2000 when she dated Trump and posed as a Bond girl type figure in a racy photo series for British GQ titled “Sex at 30,000 Feet: Melania Knauss Earns Her Air Miles.” The accompanying copy of the GQ broadcast boasts that Melania is “fluent in four languages”.
The copy suggests that such talent could come in “very handy for those high-level meetings.” Trump was seriously considering running for president at the time, CNN correspondent Kate Bennett wrote in “Free Melania,” her biography of the first lady.
Melania Trump bragged about her language skills during the 2016 presidential campaign. In February 2016, she sat down for an interview with MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski, during which she discussed her modeling career. She also stated that she speaks English, Italian, French, German and Slovenian.
Jordan said Melania Trump also told him in 2016 that she spoke all of those languages. Since then, news reports and social media have continued to say that she is multilingual, with some reports adding that she is also fluent in Serbian.
Trying to confirm Melania Trump’s language abilities, Jordan said she spoke to people who worked with her during her modeling days. Melania Trump arrived in 1993 to work in Vienna, where the main language is German. But modeling agent Wolfgang Schwarz told Jordan that Melania knew so little German that they spoke English together.
Jordan said she also spoke with photographers and others who had worked with Melania Trump over the years. Some are native speakers of Italian, French and German, but said they had never heard her use more than a few words in those languages.
Melania Trump’s proclaimed fluency in Italian was not evident when she visited the Vatican in May 2017 as part of her husband’s first official trip abroad, Jordan reported. When Pope Francis reached out to Melania, she said in English, “Thank you. Delighted to meet you.”
The Pope appears to have been informed that Melania Trump could supposedly speak Italian. He switched to that language and lightly asked if she fed her husband potica, a traditional Slovenian pastry.
“She looked at him and said nothing,” Jordan wrote. “Francis beckoned to his interpreter, who came forward and translated the pope’s words into English. Melania finally answered and laughed, ‘Potica, yes!’ »
When a papal aide presented Melania Trump with a rosary to be blessed by the Pope, she again replied in English, “Oh, I would love to, thank you. Grazie,” she said. She added another Italian word when responding in English to the pope’s question about his next stop. “I’m going to visit a hospital, for toddlers. Thanks very much.”
Jordan wrote that Melania Trump might have been too smitten with Francis to try her Italian, or she didn’t want to be rude and exclude President Trump and his daughter-in-law Ivanka Trump from her conversation with the Pope.
Or, Jordan said, maybe Melania Trump had taken a page out of Trump’s playbook: “to overdo it if it builds the brand and polishes the image.”
The “narrative” of Melania Trump possessing vast language skills aligns with Trump’s desire to have her become the new Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Jordan said. After all, the cosmopolitan wife of President John F. Kennedy was able to converse in French with Pope John XXIII for 32 minutes during his visit to the Vatican in 1962.
During her trip to Italy in 2017, Melania Trump also spoke entirely in English when she sat next to an Italian mayor during a lunch with spouses of G7 leaders, Jordan reported. Two months later, headlines from the first lady’s visit to a Paris children’s hospital in July 2017 trumpeted her speaking French to young patients.
But even a Daily Telegraph video titled “Melania Trump speaks French” doesn’t show the first lady saying much more than “Hello” and “My name is Melania.” The video also shows her switching back to English when she asks a child, “What’s your name?” She also praises the child for speaking “very good English”.
Two years later, Melania Trump attended the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, and used translation headphones to listen to a speech by French President Emmanuel Macron, Jordan reported.
At least one reporter, CNN commentator Keith Boykin, eventually spotted a problem, Jordan reported. “Wait,” Boykin said. “I thought Melania Trump was fluent in French.”
This story has been updated to include Bette Midler’s apology for criticizing Melania Trump’s accent.