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.


  1. Maybe they’re saying there are more Spanish speakers because they *want* to see more Spanish speakers.

  2. To be fair, it’s a subbing error in a throwaway supplement part of the paper, and they’ll have a correction published early next week. But of course, it shouldn’t happen in the first place…

  3. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity, MJ. I would find it hard to believe that the Guardian’s editorial staff cares deeply either way which language has more speakers in the US.

  4. Don’t forget, Steve, that the Guardian is so badly written that Private Eye for years has called it the Grauniad. I think a lot of the editors there really aren’t very bright or careful.
    The other day I saw a wonderful typo somewhere else, which sadly I cannot remember the name of, saying that there were 45 million Muslims in France today.

  5. Don’t forget, Steve, that the Guardian is so badly written that Private Eye for years has called it the Grauniad. I think a lot of the editors there really aren’t very bright or careful.
    You might want to read my second sentence a le-e-etle more closely, with particular attention to the parenthesis.

  6. Isn’t Alan Smithee the name that directors use when they don’t want to be associated with a project they’ve done? Smithee, Smithers, close enough.

  7. Kári Tulinius says

    My theory is that the original sentence read:
    “Spanish is fast rising in importance and there are now more Spanish speakers in some US States than English.” While wrong, it’s at least mildly plausible. If that is the case, it’s better that the plausible untruth was replaced with the ridiculous whopper.

  8. Or “more Spanish Speakers in the Americas than English speakers”, corrected by a computer.

  9. “It is the policy of the Guardian to correct significant errors as soon as possible. Please quote the date and page number. Readers may contact the office of the readers’ editor by telephoning +44 (0)20 7713 4736 between 11 am and 5 pm UK time Monday to Friday excluding public holidays [NB This Monday is in fact a UK public holiday, except for me 🙁 ] … Email:
    So, perhaps everyone who makes a comment here should also do that as well.

  10. And as for Mark’s slipshod comment that the Guardian is badly written (perhaps he means badly proofread)- that may or may not have been true back in the days of hot metal printing in the 1960s when Private Eye magazine coined that term, but it hasn’t been true for some time and I wouldn’t consider Private Eye a reliable source – and in fairness, nor would the claim to be. It merely proves that Private Eye hasn’t had any new jokes for many, many years. I could constantly call Mark, Mork but that wouldn’t (necessarily) prove him to be a bug-eyed alien.

  11. RE: United States vs. America. America be the euphanism for US of A. and not the Continent of the Americas. Unfortunately the reverse does work and the math minded would think that if A = B surely b = a. Similarly some writers do not Know their Geo grapie. Even the Dictionary defines America as North America [pt 2, and pt 3 of Websters.] So when quoting Spanish be spoken in America some will get it wrong and so to keep it neat, swop it for a false Synonym or word checker.
    Then there be another grammar,poltical,geo problem for writers, UK vs GB vs England can upset the many a Celt or Briton, and as for those Brits, the Scots would like to clean up Eliza I vs II mess.
    Tis why we need a free press that is read by discriminating hoi poloi to read the right left wing press.

  12. The Grauniad? What’s not to liek? Without them I would never have known that the first US suburb is a place called “Levitown”…
    Levitown is a bus ride beyond the aptly named Hicksville in the outer suburbs of New York.,,1838162,00.html

  13. Ah, but he doesn’t say English SPEAKERS, just English. So clearly he is referring to the number of non-Amish people. Which, uh… oh, wait.

  14. Does anybody else find the fact that they used the word “Hindustani” strange? To me, it sounds so 1950s.

  15. It is a bit archaic, but I like the acknowledgment that it’s a single language. “Hindi/Urdu” is more up-to-date but also more awkward.

  16. Maybe Matt’s onto something. They’re saying there are more Spanish speakers than there are people from England (as opposed to people of English descent) living in the United States.
    Okay, I don’t actually believe that was the intended meaning, but at least that claim would be true.

  17. Perhaps it should have been “there are now more Spanish speakers in the United States than any other language besides English”?
    That would be a plausible claim.

  18. Now at Language Log I see:
    [Update 2 — John Wells wrote to Alan Smithers, who responded:
    Many thanks. The statement as it appears is ludicrous. The fault is entirely mine and The Guardian is blameless.
    The thought that was in my mind when I wrote that part of the sentence was `there are now more Spanish speakers in some of the United States than English’, and I didn’t notice in the read-through that I hadn’t written it this way. (I was taking native speaker to be implied by the context.)
    The Guardian will be printing a correction.
    Now the question rests on the meaning of “some of the United States”.
    If that means one or more of the 50 states, I would find it hard to believe. Certainly some states like California or Arizona have a lot of Spanish speakers, but hardly a majority.
    Maybe he means certain parts of the US, like maybe certain neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In that case he would be correct.
    But in that case, it is not difficult to find neighborhoods in the US in which the majority language is Vietnamese, Korean, or Cantonese or whatever.
    There is a Vietnamese establishment close to my work where I often venture for lunch. The proprietor has little English other than “barbeque pork sandwich, two dollar”, and most communication is done by pointing.
    I suppose I should add that this neighborhood was once mostly Hispanic, and Asians have moved in more recently.
    On one occasion the person in front of me in line requested “una torta de carne asada”. The proprietor didn’t blink an eye, rang him up and gave him his order.
    But this is someone whose English skills are marginal. It left me wondering whether he realized that this person was speaking a different language. Maybe he thinks that “torta” and “sandwich” are different English words for the same thing?

  19. Sorry, as it worked out it is not as clear as I had hoped in my previous post which is quotation and which is my own opinion.
    I had hoped that the quotation would be in italics, but for some strange reason it wasn’t.

  20. Siganus Sutor says

    Hindustani: I don’t think the expression is necessarily archaic. Or if it is archaic, it is still used by some archaic people or bodies. Like, say, the state-run television MBC, which explains on its website that its “Radio and TV programmes (…) are broadcast in different languages including French, English, Hindustani, Creole, Chinese and a host of other Indian languages.” In doing so they are probably right, as Hindustani is the word commonly used to describe the language of certain movies, especially Bollywood movies.
    Hindi would be a more formal language than Hindustani, the latter being more inclusive, less rigid and more inclined to borrow “foreign” expressions. For instance Geerjanan Rungoo, presented here as a linguist, says in the foreword of his book Hindi or Hindustani, Explanation in English that Hindi is used in some formal occasions, particularly in schools and during social duties, while Hindustani, the public language used by everyone, appears in films.
    But the distinction between Hindi, Hindustani and Urdu may not be straightforward in all cases, as different registers may easily be mixed.

  21. Eskandar Jabbari says

    But this is someone whose English skills are marginal. It left me wondering whether he realized that this person was speaking a different language. Maybe he thinks that “torta” and “sandwich” are different English words for the same thing?
    More likely is that his Spanish skills are on par with, or perhaps better than, his English skils. You mentioned that the neighborhood was once mostly Hispanic; it’s safe to venture that a significant portion of his employees and clientele are Spanish-speaking, and when you work with people who speak a particular language day in and day out, you’re bound to pick up some of the language, especially in cases like this, where it’s quite easy to become fluent in “restaurant Spanish”.

  22. Siganus Sutor says

    Eskandar Jabbari : it’s quite easy to become fluent in “restaurant Spanish”.
    … and start thinking that “chili con carne” is a typical Mexican dish.

  23. Increasingly restaurant workers are mostly from Mexico, but some are Native Mexicans who are not native speakers of Spanish either.

  24. Maidhc, the language of administration of Puerto Rico is Spanish, Spanish is the first language of a good majority of its population (which holds US citizenship) and it has been US territory for over a century. That the rest of the US constantly forgets about it does not change that, in every way that matters, the island is part of that country.

  25. maidhc: I added the italics for you; let me know if I screwed it up.
    Siganus: I’m glad to hear “Hindustani” is still in use; I always liked the word.
    Aidan: While it’s true that the rest of the US constantly forgets about Puerto Rico, that’s not relevant to maidhc’s “one or more of the 50 states.” Puerto Rico is not a state.

  26. Languagehat, Maidhc didn’t limit his musing to the established states, and his “But in that case, it is not difficult to find neighborhoods […]” reads to me like he’s saying ‘pshaw!’ (okay, if he’s as Irish as the name indicates, he’s unlikely to say ‘pshaw’ in actuality, but bear with me) to the whole idea of a substantial area of the US being majority Spanish-speaking.

  27. Aidan (another one; not Kehoe) says

    With respect to Hindi/Urdu, is there a word to refer to languages that are for all intents and purposes the same, apart from the religion of the speaker? Obviously refering to both (or more?) of them as ‘Hindi’ would give Indian muslims the shits (and vice versa). I think I coined ‘theolect’ in a recent essay; it seems reasonable to me.
    Do I even have to have this word ‘approved’ by anyone? I tend to coin words that are very transparent semantically, but they elicit a lot of anti-big-word sentiment from a small but vocal group of language nazis and prescriptivists.

  28. What do you call the relationship between Czech and Slovak? The Slovaks are notably more religious.

  29. Diodoros, they’re not theolects of a single language by the definition my Sydneysider namesake gives, but they would be if the Czechs were by some miracle still Hussite. “Mutually intelligible languages” is probably the simplest way to put it.

  30. Puerto Rico is a 3.900.000 inhabitants island. Most of them are fully bilingual english – spanish.
    Where do this spanish speaker majority hides when I travel to USA?
    Mexicans say “torta” meaning “sandwich”.
    To a Spanish speaker from Spain, it would be an “emparedado” or a “bocata”. To an uruguayan, it would be a “refuerzo”, to an argentinian, a “sanguche”…
    As a matter of fact, English generalizes Spanish as a language. Spaniards do say “castellano”, to the spanish language born in castillian area. It is difficult to talk about an “Español”, as most of the spanish regions have their own language or dialect, and “castellano” is an impossed “lingua franca”.

  31. I believe chile con carne *is* a typical Mexican dish. However, it does not resemble the USA version.

  32. From today’s Corrections & Clarifications in the Guardian ….
    English speakers still far outnumber Spanish speakers in the US (A tale of many tongues, page 13, August 25). What we meant to say was that in some pockets of the US more people speak Spanish as a first language than English.

  33. Yes, that will do. “Pockets” is a marvelously flexible term. Puerto Rico is a pocket, as is my old neighborhood in Manhattan.

  34. That is flexible. There are also “pockets” of the US where native Bengali speakers outnumber native English speakers 3 to 1 – my neighbor’s house for example.

  35. There you go! Isn’t journalism fun?

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