Tag Archives: Spanish-speaking population

An update, an anecdote, an apology

The most-viewed post on this blog, with more than 11,000 page views, is “The top 5 Spanish-speaking countries”. I wrote this post almost three years ago. Many visitors find it via Google (or other) searches such as “top 5 Spanish speaking countries”, “best Spanish speaking countries”, or even “coolest Spanish speaking countries”.

I based the post on the language statistics in the CIA World Factbook. This is an excellent website, rich in content and also user-friendly. As an American taxpayer I’ve been funding the CIA for years, and I liked the idea of getting some non-lethal return on my (involuntary) investment.

The post reported that, according to the Factbook, there are more first-language speakers of Spanish in the United States than in Spain, because more than a quarter of Spaniards speak Catalan, Galician, or Basque as a first language instead of Castilian Spanish. In the years after writing this post, I came to doubt this “fact”. Both the 2001 national census of Spain (the most recent census to ask about languages) and the Ethnologue database give lower numbers for the non-Castilian languages. Ethnologue, a widely cited resource, reports that 8% of the population speaks Catalan as a first language, 5% Galician, and 1% Basque.

Earlier this year, while editing the relevant chapter of my book, I decided to get to the bottom of this discrepancy. I emailed the CIA, using the contact information on the Factbook website, and asked why their numbers for non-Castilian languages were so high. I heard back promptly from Molly Hale (the “public voice of the CIA”, not the Pokemon character):

Thank you for your interest in The World Factbook.  Our information on languages in Spain is, unfortunately, extremely dated.  We are currently in the midst of a long-term project to update our fields on language, religion, and ethnic groups, but have not yet found any new language data for Spain.  Spain’s last two national censuses in 2011 and 2001* did not ask a question about primary language used at home or mother tongue, and we have not found another source of information.  Ethnologue, as you mention, has some estimates for each language used in Spain, but they are based on different sources, dates of information, and methodologies, which complicates using them together to construct an overall breakdown.  Nevertheless, this may be your best option, if a better data source cannot be found.

*No, there is 2001 census data (see link above)

Accordingly I have now updated my 2013 post using the Ethnologue data. I apologize for leaving the inaccurate data up for so long. The moral of the story? Never trust the CIA!

The top 5 Spanish-speaking countries

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:

  1. Mexico (103 million) — Thank goodness, most kids usually get this one right.
  2. Colombia (41 million) — A dark horse. No student in the USA would ever predict that it is ahead of Argentina.
  3. Argentina (39 million) — Someone always puts Argentina in the top 5.
  4. Spain (38.4 million) — This is after subtracting for minority languages (mostly Catalan).
  5. 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.]