International Languages

A.Melon juicy at
Mon Oct 28 01:48:14 PST 2002

> On Sun, 2002-10-27 at 23:09, A.Melon wrote: 
> > Chinese is also used a fair amount in southeastern Asian 
> > countries (e.g., Singapore, Malaysia). 
> "Chinese" is not a spoken language. 

I know, just continuing the terminology begun in the
started when someone made some comment about how supporting non-
English languages on computers was a waste of time, but at some
point, it switched over from written languages to spoken languages.
(Just in case you are wondering, I do not endorse the position that
supporting non-English languages on computers is a waste of time.)

> If you want to play the "who has the biggest language" game, you
> could  reasonably compare English speakers to Mandarin speakers,
> but be careful  not to limit yourself to English NATIVE speakers -
> that is not a fair  comparison since hundreds of millions of
> Chinese people do NOT speak  Putonghua as a first language. Last
> time I got into this argument, ten   

Definitely not trying to "argue" with anyone here!  But, if I
"biggest language" as number of words rather than number of speakers,
have heard the claim that no language even comes close to English.

> years ago, I did a quick reckoning (don't forget to count English 
> speakers in places like Africa and Asia - there are hundreds of
> millions  of them) and estimated there were about 1.3 billion
> people around the  world who could communicate "well enough" in
> English (ie well enough to  hold jobs or travel around the U.S.).
> The records are still around  Usenet if you search, and I even got
> cited in a linguistics paper  written by some guy in Germany :-).

Many, many people hold jobs in the US without speaking English at
all :-)  But, rather strangely, when I went to Beijing, I could
understand the German-speaking guides at the forbidden city much
better than the English-speaking guides, even though I am native
in English but not German...

> >(Rather curious, that Spanish, 
> > being used by maybe 200 million or so in the Americas, is 
> > not used uniformly throughout Spain) 
> Hm.. I vaguely remember the number 350 million for Spanish.. Mexico
> has  a population close to 100 million all by itself. Add places
> like 
> Argentina and Venezuela... 

OK, if you want to nitpick :-)  The 200 million does look like a
underestimate; I think I started with too low a population for the
Americas, before subtracting the US, Canada, and Brazil.  Be that as
may, from the CIA web site, I am getting roughly 312 million for the
combined populations of 17 mainland countries (all but US, Canada,
Brazil, Suriname and Belize), plus Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
Didn't count the other island countries, didn't account for the fact
that many millions in the US speak Spanish, and some people in the
countries counted probably don't.

At the risk of starting a flame war (don't speak Spanish or Portugese
myself, so I can't really judge), people have told me that Portugese
is no more different from Castillian than, for example, Catalan is,
and the only reason it is considered a different language rather than
a dialect of Spanish is because Portugal is an independent country.
In any event, when I hear people speaking Spanish, I am surprised at
how much I can understand, even though I have never studied it.

> > Then there is Arabic, 
> > which is the language of choice in more than a dozen 
> > countries, some of which have quite large populations. 
> Er.. Which? Egypt is the only big Arab country, really. It is
> pretty  big, though. 60 million people, last I heard. 

Well, depends how you define "big", I suppose.  More than 30 million
each in Morocco and Algeria, more than 20 million each in Iraq and
Saudia Arabia, nearly 20 million each in Syria and Yemen.  Roughly
10 million in Tunisia.  Almost 40 million in Sudan, although I'm not
sure how uniform use of Arabic is there.  And that's not even
France :-)

> > Portugese and Dutch also have an international 
> > following. 
> Where, outside Holland and Belgium and perhaps South Africa, does
> ANYONE  speak Dutch? 

E.g., Suriname, Namibia.  But even leaving these aside, doesn't South
Africa count?

> > And then there is Swahili, the lingua franca 
> > of eastern Africa. Quite a few international languages 
> > out there... 
> Swahili is useful but not as pervasive as one might think. Once you
>  head inland from the coast of East Africa it drops off quickly. In
>  Uganda you won't find all that many speakers, and in Kenya it's as
> much  a second language for most people as English is. 

Well, yes, but that's why I cited it as an "international" language;
is used as a common language by people with different first

> (P.S. Useful phrase in bad but effective Swahili: "Ninataka moja
> pilsner  baridi sana") 

Don't understand at all, except possibly "pilsner" :-)  If I'm on the
right track here, I recently tried a Mosi.  I'm not planning on
a second...

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