Tomorrow, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. In celebration, we wanted to bring your attention to women who have spent part of their lives learning multiple language: these amazing female polyglots. Of course, there are many famous bilingual women not included in this list; for true wow factor we decided to give props to the women who went beyond two languages to learn three, four, or, in one case, sixteen.
Asin, actress – Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, English, Sanskrit, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu, French, Italian, Spanish, German. We’re not sure to what extent the Bollywood actress speaks each of the sixteen language listed above, but it’s an impressive list by any standards.
Cleopatra, pharaoh – Cleopatra was reputed to have spoken nine languages, including her native Greek, as well as Egyptian, Syrian, Persian, and Arabic among others.
Jodie Foster, actress – English, French, German, Spanish, Italian. Jodie Foster’s French is quite impressive: watch this video of her conducting an interview en français below.
Salma Hayek, actress – English, Spanish, Portuguese. Hayek is Mexican-American, and while her father is of Lebanese descent, she says that she does not speak Arabic, but she does speak English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Audrey Hepburn, actress/humanitarian – Dutch, French, English, Italian, German, Spanish. Audrey Hepburn’s mother was Belgian, and she grew up speaking Dutch and French. She later learned a bit of Spanish, which she used later in her life while doing humanitarian work as a Goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. Here she is conducting an interview in Dutch in 1959.
Iman (Abdulmajid), model/actress/entrepreneur – Somali, Arabic, Italian, French, English. Iman was born in Somalia, and moved to Kenya with her family when she was young. As she told Into the Gloss in a 2013 interview, “I decided that I was going to get a part time job, and the only thing that I could come up with was the Ministry of Tourism in Kenya—I spoke five languages and tourism was just becoming big there, especially French and Italian. But there were no brochures for them, because everything was in English, so I began to translate the brochures into French and Italian. It was easy because I could just take the brochures to the [university] campus and translate them at my leisure.” Her career as a translator was sidetracked, however, when she was discovered by a photographer on her way to university.
Aung San Suu Kyi, activist/politician – Burmese, English, French, Japanese. Burmese activist and politician was born in Rangoon, but she studied at an English school, and eventually went on to receive her degree from Oxford University. According to this profile from the BBC, she worked on her French and Japanese (she had previously lived in Japan) while under house arrest for her peaceful protests against the government.
Jhumpa Lahiri, author – Bengali, English, Italian. Lahiri recently released a book about the joy of being multilingual. In order to learn Italian, she read and wrote only in Italian for three years. You can read our post about her book here.
Angela Merkel, politician – German, Russian, English. The German chancellor was raised in East Germany, where students were required to learn Russian in school. She also apparently speaks a “passable” English, but relies on translators when discussing sensitive international negotiations.
Mother Teresa, humanitarian – Albanian, English, Serbo-Croatian, Bengali, Hindi. Mother Teresa learned Bengali while working in Calcutta so that she could communicate with her patients.
Natalie Portman, actress – English, Hebrew, French, Japanese, German, Arabic. Portman learned Hebrew as a child, and made her directorial debut with the Hebrew-language film סיפור על אהבה וחושך (A Tale of Love and Darkness) in 2015.
Queen Elizabeth I of England, royalty – English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Latin, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, Irish
Queen Silvia of Sweden, royalty – Swedish, German, Portuguese, French, Spanish, English, Swedish Sign Language
It’s not uncommon for members of the royalty to learn multiple languages; in the past, as in the case of Queen Elizabeth I, it certainly enhanced their negotiating skills with potential friends or foes. In more recent times, as in the case of Queen Silvia of Sweden, the importance of knowing language is less diplomatically urgent, although her ability to speak multiple languages, and especially her acquisition of Swedish Sign Language, has endeared her to many.
Elif Şafak, author – Turkish, English, French, Spanish, Arabic, German. Şafak has written novels in both Turkish and English. Read more about her appreciation for bilingualism and her experience writing in another language here.
Shakira, singer – Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, Italian. The South American pop star has quite a good command of the Romance languages. You can see a video of her speaking all of these languages below.
Anna-Kazumi Stahl, author – Spanish, English, German. Anna-Kazumi was raised in the United States but wrote her first novel in Spanish after relocating to Buenos Aires. You can listen to her TED Talk about languages, words, and silence here. (Click on the “CC” button for English subtitles.)
Malala Yousafzai, activist – Urdu, Pashto, English. Malala’s multi-lingualism has helped her bring attention to her story globally; she speaks around the world to advocate for the access to education for young girls.
Susanna Zaraysky, linguist – Susanna understands that studying a language isn’t necessarily the same as speaking it. According to her website, she has studied 11 languages (English, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian, Ladino, Hebrew, Arabic, and Hungarian) and speaks 8 of them.
Are you inspired yet? It’s not too late for you either. Learning another language doubles your experience of the world, and once you have one language under your belt, the rest get easier and easier to learn.