OFF TOPIC Spanish in the USA [was Re: Explanation of this Python language feature?]

Steven D'Aprano steve+comp.lang.python at
Sun Mar 30 12:35:48 CEST 2014

On Sun, 30 Mar 2014 01:48:27 -0500, Mark H Harris wrote:

> On 3/30/14 1:31 AM, Steven D'Aprano wrote:
>>> I'm not sure what point you are trying to make. We have people here
>>> from all over the earth, and enough illegal immigrants speaking
>>> Spanish to account for a population about the size of Ohio.
>> *raises eyebrow*
>> Did you intend to imply that it is only illegal immigrants who speak
>> Spanish in the USA?
>     Don't be silly, Steven, it doesn't become you.

Given the sorts of patronising, condescending things you insist are true 
about non-Americans, such as their supposed inability to communicate in 
their own language on the Internet, I wasn't sure.

>> The most recent US census found there are 38.5 million people in the US
>> who primarily speak Spanish, and 45 million who speak it as their first
>> or second language. In comparison, there are only an estimated 11
>> million illegal immigrants (of which only 7 million is from Mexico).
>     Hilarious!   That's part of the problem, um, its because they are
> *illegal* that the census bureau does not know about them in terms of
> exact numbers; its a nice effort though.

The number of illegal immigrants is not estimated from the Census numbers 
directly. It's not like they have a tick box "Are you in this country 

Just because *you* don't know how illegal immigrant numbers are 
estimated, or what margin of error those estimates might have, don't make 
the mistake of imagining that any such effort is "hilarious", a joke, or 
otherwise useless. Naturally the figure is *estimated*, I even said it 
was estimated, and gave it as a round number.

If I had said there were 11,205,971 illegal immigrants in the USA as of 
last Tuesday, then you would have a good excuse to mock my spurious 
precision. Otherwise, not so much.

>     America is a melting pot (always has been). We have thousands of
> ethnic groups living here and thousands of languages spoken here.

Not really. There are under 350 languages spoken in the USA. Over 92% of 
the population speaking just two of them, English and Spanish, with 
Chinese a *very* distant third. Only eight languages are spoken by more 
than 1 million people. Even if you double that figure, to capture "that 
one guy who speaks Gunwinyguan" and other outliers, you still end up well 
under even a single thousand.

The surprising thing to me about this is not that the number of languages 
is so low (there are about 6000-7000 languages in the world), but that it 
is so high. I would have predicted well under 100. After all, spoken 
language popularity is an excellent example of network effects: the more 
people who speak a language, the more valuable it is to speak the same 

Network effects explain why, out of the six or seven thousand languages 
in the world, just thirteen account for more than half the world's 

1) Mandarin
2) Spanish
3) English
4) Hindi
5) Arabic
6) Portuguese
7) Bengali
8) Russian
9) Japanese
10) Punjabi
11) German
12) Javanese
13) Wu

adding up to 51%. The next thirteen bring the total to 64%.

(Figures are, naturally, approximate and subject to change.)

> All of
> them are in some place on the continuum of English as a second language;
> its the only way to survive here.

Approximately 5% of the US population either do not speak English at all, 
or speak it poorly. That includes approximately half a million ASL 
speakers (American Sign Language, which is not a manual representation of 
English but an independent language in it's own right), the majority of 
whom are unable to speak or understand spoken English.

Be careful of making sweeping generalisations like "the only way to 
survive". Especially when they're so judgemental. It's not like there are 
gangs of armed militia hunting down deaf children and foreign grannies 
who only speak the language of their homeland. Well, maybe in Arizona.


Steven D'Aprano

More information about the Python-list mailing list