TL;DR. My question: The following sources onfirm that despite Napoleon's industry and perseverance, he never refined his French to the level of a native fluent speaker.
So how did he succeed in France, especially were it more elitist from 1769 to 1821?

Optional Additional Information:

[Source:] ... He always spoke with a marked Corsican accent and never learned to spell French properly.[17]' ...

Source: Napoleon: Educating a Genius, by J. David Markham

While at Autun, Napoleon had to learn French; as of yet, the future Emperor of the French could hardly speak the language. The effort did not go well. Napoleon found memorizing difficult, and his natural inclination to hurry did not do him well in the study of language. Worse yet, his French had (and always would have) a strong Corsican accent, a fact that did him no favors throughout his schooling. Still, after three months at Autun, Napoleon had learned conversational French and was able to pass his language exams.

... The opportunity to be an officer was reserved almost exclusively for the nobility and almost exclusively for native Frenchmen. To say that the system was elitist would be an understatement. ...

Worse yet, Napoleon wasn't even French! True, Corsica had become a French territory, but the French had a very low opinion of Corsicans (noble or otherwise), seeing them as just this side of barbarians. ... On Corsica, Napoleon's family was fairly high on the social scale. At Brienne, he was virtually at the bottom.

Add to that the fact that Napoleon didn't speak great French (and spoke it with a heavy Corsican accent), and it was clear that Napoleon was stepping into a situation that could prove to be very difficult. ...

  • 9
    It is entirely possible to speak with a heavy accent and still have the fluency of a native speaker. (Henry Kissinger comes to mind). Prior to the modern era is was also possible to be a fluent writer and lack spelling (D'israeli comes to mind). Finally, with enough artillery, it is possible to succeed with minimal language skills.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 16:37
  • 1
    @MarkC.Wallace Please advise if I'm wrong, but the sources do not state that Napoleon I attained the the fluency of a native speaker`.? They suggest otherwise.
    – user8309
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 16:40
  • Please advise if I'm wrong, but the sources do not state that Napoleon I attained the fluency of a native speaker? Also, how did Napoleon I attain enough artillery, given minimal language skills (Did you reverse the order?)?
    – user8309
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 17:00
  • Napoléon had an non-native accent (which was true of many, many French people back then) but I don't think there is any question that he spoke it fluently. He is said to have been a rather poor speller though.
    – JTM
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 18:27

2 Answers 2


Fortunately for Napoleon, not speaking French well was still very common in France in this period. In 1794, only one tenth of the population were fluent in French. The pre-Napoleonic revolutionary government made strides to rectify this by banning all non-Parisian French dialects for official business, but they didn't devote the resources to educate the people and ensure the language was spoken universally.

  • 7
    Just as a point of clarification, a lot of what the French consider separate languages (for internal political reasons) would be considered dialects by an English-speaker using a strict mutual-intelligibility metric. Even given that though, only the north half of France could be said to have traditionally spoken "a French dialect".
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 18:09
  • 2
    @T.E.D.: And not even all of Northern France at that, as Normans and Bretons speak strong regional dialects as well. Of course half of Napoleon's Generals and Marshals spoke dialects bordering on mutually unintelligibility, so this was not considered a handicap at all. To The Convention, only results mattered. Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 23:40
  • 1
    Normand is one of the Oïl languages, like French. Breton on the other hand is a completely different language, in the Celtic family.
    – JTM
    Commented May 26, 2018 at 18:25

Mao Zedong never learned to speak standard Chinese (Putonghua, alias Mandarin); he could only speak Hunan dialect, which Chinese people in other provinces find incomprehensible. This did not prevent him from becoming China's absolute leader.

  • 5
    Interesting, relevant, would be better with sources.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 1:45
  • Look at the news reels from party conferences and similar occasions. When Mao speaks everyone else is wearing ear plugs for simulataneous translation.
    – fdb
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 8:33

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