On Leadership and Languages: Interview with Gregory J. Nedved

Is it possible to begin studying a foreign language in college, only to become a professional linguist, published author, and Army interpreter? If you’re NML Vice President Gregory Nedved, the answer is a resounding yes.

nedved-800x641Greg started learning Mandarin Chinese while studying in Taiwan. Since then, he has worked for more than 30 years in the Army and Department of Defense, offering his expertise as a translator, interpreter, and instructor. He even gives occasional tours in Chinese at the National Cryptologic Museum at Ft. Meade, MD.

Given this wealth of experience, it comes as no surprise that Greg has a thing or two to share about the role of foreign language in government affairs. He just released Presidential Foreign Language Trivia, filled with amusing and surprising language-related anecdotes about our country’s leaders. We sat down with Greg to learn more about the book and what it can mean for this election season.

Which languages are cited the most in your book?

The backgrounds and experiences of the presidents determine the languages. As you can guess, the classical languages Greek and Latin, especially the latter, dominate. There is also a lot of French, Spanish, and German. People might be surprised to hear how often Chinese shows up in the text. Actually, I’d be hard pressed to pronounce some of the foreign language words which show up in my book!

What is your favorite anecdote from the book?

I have several. I like the one about future president Richard Nixon (1969-1974) campaigning in Chinatown in Los Angeles, unaware that there were signs written in Chinese in the background denouncing him. I also like the story about future president Ulysses Grant (1869-1877), as a Civil War commander, receiving an attack order in Hungarian. Assuming it said “attack,” Grant did just that–and it turns out that his assumption was correct when the orders were finally translated.

What can you tell us about our presidents based on your research of their language skills and experience?

Not all presidents were good in foreign languages; some had no interest in them. Moreover, those that were good in languages were not necessarily good presidents or leaders. I haven’t noted much of a correlation between foreign language study and leadership skills.

Is it coincidental that your book has come out right before a presidential election?

No–I wanted to get it out before we had a new president, which would delay the book further.  The book took 2-3 years to write.  If I delayed it any further, it would mean more work for me since I would have to add anecdotes for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.


Interview has been edited and condensed.