Happy International Women’s Day! We’re celebrating all the phenomenal women of today, and the women who’ve come before us to make this world better. We compiled 7 women from around the world who’ve made history — who are not only brilliant and revolutionary, but also superhuman linguists.
Best known for: First Lady alongside President Frankin D. Roosevelt, later a United Nations delegate.
Languages spoken: English, French
This woman was nothing short of revolutionary. She was one of the most active first ladies in history whose humanitarian efforts made great strides for social, racial, and political injustices. When she was growing up, she came under the influence of French headmistress Marie Souvestre — which might explain how she ended up bilingual.
Best known for: A Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize.
Languages spoken: English, Pashto, Urdu
No one can do it all on their own, even if they’re brilliant enough to become the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. Malala was educated by her father Ziauddin Youzafzai, with whom she learned three languages, and stayed up with him most nights talking about politics after her brothers went to bed. Her father even took her to speak at press clubs, where she asked her audience, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” As she gained prominence, Taliban leaders went after her and she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman on her way home. She miraculously survived, and went on to continue changing the world.
Best known for: She was the first woman to become the US Secretary of State.
Languages spoken: Czech, English, French, Russian
When Madeleine Albright became a US citizen at 20 years old, she was already fluent in four languages: Czech, her mother-tongue; Serbo-Croat, which she learned from schooling in Switzerland; and English in London, where the family evacuated to during the war. When she and her family fled to America, she dropped her English accent, and as she puts it, became “thoroughly American Maddy.”
Dr. Mae Jemison
Best known for: An engineer, physician, and NASA astronaut who became the first African American woman to travel in space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992. She was also the first actual astronaut on Star Trek.
Languages spoken: English, Japanese, Russian, Swahili
Dr. Mae Jemison never had any idea how much she would accomplish in her life — she just wanted to visit the stars. She said, “I didn’t even think about whether I’d be the first African-American woman in space… I just wanted to go into space.” On top of her accomplishments, she was also a Peace Corps volunteer, teacher, dancer, founder of two technology companies, and a superstar student (she went to Stanford University at 16) with a knack for learning languages.
Best known for: Considered one of the 20th century’s greatest humanitarians, she founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic congregation of women dedicated to helping the poor. She was canonized in 2016 as Saint Teresa of Calcutta.
Languages spoken: Albanian, Bengali, English, Hindi, Serbian
Mother Teresa is now Saint Teresa, and for good reason. Living in Calcutta, India, she spoke the local language, Bengali, as well as her mother tongue, Albanian, and Hindi, Serbian, and English. All these languages came in handy when she traveled abroad to speak to congregations. However, she didn’t speak her mother tongue for 60 years, since her home country Albania was under communist rule.
Best known for: Her starring roles in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, and Sabrina, not to mention her iconic style and look. She spent the last five years of her life as a Special Ambassador for UNICEF — the organization that provided her much-needed relief as a child in post-WWII Holland — traveling the world to raise awareness for children in need.
Languages spoken: Dutch, English, French, Italian, Spanish
This enduringly iconic woman is no longer with us, but her legacy lives on. On top of being one our world’s best actresses and inspiring humanitarians, she’s also a multilingual chameleon. Her international background (born in Belgium to a mother of Dutch descent and mixed Austrian-British descent) led her some of the way there, but she went even further and ended up fluent in five languages.
Best known for: An American writer and civil rights activist best known for her series of seven autobiographies, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Languages spoken: Arabic, English, Fanti, French, Italian, Spanish
When Maya Angelou was traumatically sexually assualted at 7 years old by her mother’s boyfriend, she spoke to no one except her older brother Bailey Johnson for years. When she finally found her voice again, she fell in love with the “sound of language” — hence why she became a linguistic maestro in more languages than the one she writes in — and now she’s one of our country’s most prominent voices.