At some point during the first couple of weeks of a beginning Spanish class, I like to have my students pair up and, together, write down what they think are the top five Spanish-speaking countries by population. This is a partly an excuse for them to have a good look at the maps of their textbook and realize how just how widespread Spanish is. (I like to point out the Spanish areas in Africa while we’re at it!) Country names are also a great way for beginning students to practice Spanish pronunciation: for example, the clear vowels, guttural x, and accented é of México. The same exercise works for a more advanced class if I have the students also estimate the countries’ populations, so that they can practice saying numbers in the millions.
It’s always remarkable to see the mistakes that students make. Every year, several kids think that Brazil is a Spanish-speaking country. Or Haiti. Haiti, of course, would be too small to make the top five even if it were Spanish-speaking, but American students seem to have the impression that Caribbean islands are just teeming with population: Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic routinely come up in this exercise, too. (In reality, Cuba is the most populated island, clocking in at #10.)
Here, for your benefit, are the actual top five, based on the numbers in the Ethnologue database and the 2015 U.S. Census:
- Mexico (103 million) — Thank goodness, most kids usually get this one right.
- Colombia (41 million) — A dark horse. No student in the USA would ever predict that it is ahead of Argentina.
- Argentina (39 million) — Someone always puts Argentina in the top 5.
- Spain (38.4 million) — This is after subtracting for minority languages (mostly Catalan).
- United States (37.6 million) — 12.8 % of the population.
The rest are up to you.
[Post updated April 16, to fix problems described in this post.]