Or so says the Guardian, in a story by Alan Smithers about a decline in the study of French and German: “The four most often spoken languages in the world are, in order, Mandarin, English, Hindustani and Spanish. Spanish is fast rising in importance and there are now more Spanish speakers in the United States than English.” [Emphasis added.] This is one of the most mindbogglingly stupid statements I’ve seen in a professional publication (though I realize that in the case of the Grauniad the word “professional” has to be applied loosely). As Mark Liberman says in the Language Log post where I found the story:
We can’t directly blame the (admittedly often slipshod and credulous) research practices of journalists, because the author of the article, Alan Smithers, is “director of the centre for education and employment research at the University of Buckingham”, and thus not a journalist at all. On the other hand, we can’t be sure that this is just one of the (often careless and even dishonest) talking points of public intellectuals, because the article was edited at the Guardian, and might well have been changed substantially from the text that Prof. Smithers submitted.
It’s that old problem of attributional abduction. My best guess is the one I started with — the Guardian’s entire editorial staff is on vacation, and has delegated its duties to the night office-cleaning crew, who are having a little competition among themselves to see who can slip the most extravagant falsehoods into print.
Oh, if you’re curious about the numbers: “according to the data from the 2000 census, 10.71% of households use Spanish, as opposed to 82.105% who use English.”
Update. See now this Language Log post for further information on both Smithers and the facts of the case.