Answer to Map #11

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Answer: This week’s cartogram depicts the approximate number of speakers of Romance languages in each country. The most widely spoken Romance languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian. The largest countries on this map—Brazil (Portuguese), Mexico (Spanish), and France (French)—are countries where the vast majority of the population speaks a Romance language.

The data for this map comes from a wide variety of sources, which we have cobbled together in the hope of making a single, readable map. As we warned you last Monday (and explained further in Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s hints), there are some particular situations in which it is difficult to trust any official data source. The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie puts out estimates of the number of French speakers in each country in which French is an official language. For countries in which Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese are official languages, we rely mainly on United Nations estimates. Fortunately, in most countries that use these languages as official languages, it seems reasonable to assume that most of the country’s citizens speak that language (though there are some more complicated cases, such as in Equatorial Guinea).

What is most difficult is to estimate the number of speakers of a particular language in countries where the majority of people speak a different language. Several people who submitted solutions to this week’s map were confused by the sizes of the United Kingdom and Germany on this cartogram. These countries appear quite large because a Eurobarometer study found that 23% of Britons and 15% of Germans can carry on a conversation in French. These may be fairly generous numbers, and in fact some other estimates put the percentage of French speakers in the United Kingdom and Germany slightly lower.

Nigeria, mentioned in Wednesday’s hint, is an interesting case for which we could not find any reliable statistics. The official language of Nigeria is English, since the country was colonized by the United Kingdom. Many citizens of Nigeria speak local languages, such as Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa, on a day-to-day basis. In spring 2016, the Nigerian government announced that it would promote French—rather than any local language—as the secondary language in Nigeria’s schools. The government’s goal is to train Nigerians to conduct trade with the country’s Francophone neighbors (every country that borders Nigeria has French as an official language). This plan has faced criticism from many Nigerians who would prefer that schools emphasize African rather than European languages. Of course, many Nigerians already do conduct trade with neighboring countries, and many also know French. We just don’t know how many of them do.

Tuesday’s hint mentioned that it is impossible to get reliable statistics for South Africa. South Africa, home to the largest economy in Africa, is facing a tremendous amount of undocumented immigration from other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Some of these immigrants come from English-speaking countries, such as Zimbabwe. Others come from countries where Romance languages are common, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (French), Angola (Portuguese), and Mozambique (Portuguese). Portuguese may even be the fastest growing language in South Africa—but, again, we can’t get reliable statistics.

If you know your Lusophone countries (that is, countries where people speak Portuguese), you could have solved this map fairly easily. See that country in dark purple just north of Australia? That’s East Timor, a former Portuguese colony. East Timor stands out because Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, is home to very few speakers of Romance languages. We talked about East Timor in the solution to Map #7, the cartogram of countries by population of Christians. That map demonstrates clearly that the Philippines and East Timor are the only two countries in Asia where a majority of the population is Christian. But what about on this map? While Spanish remains an “optional” official language of the Philippines, it is not widely spoken in the country. Now, East Timor is part of a different pair. There are two places in Asia where Portuguese is an official language: East Timor and Macao.

And yet...neither East Timor nor Macao is the country in Asia with the most Portuguese speakers. If you watched the men’s gymnastics in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, you may have heard the commentators talk about Sérgio Sasaki, a Brazilian gymnast of Japanese heritage. Sasaki is one of approximately 1.6 million people of Japanese descent living in Brazil. Many Brazilians of Japanese ancestry have returned to Japan, often with Brazilian-born children who speak Portuguese as a native language. As a result, the Asian country with the largest number of Portuguese speakers is Japan. This fun fact is an indication of how complicated migration is in our interconnected world.

Another good way to solve this map might have been to look at the countries of North Africa. Three former French colonies—Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—appear very large on this cartogram. Even though Arabic is the official language of each of these countries, French is still widely spoken in all three, and many people in these countries learn French in school. The persistence of the French language in these countries is a legacy of colonialism.

In fact, the fastest growing major language in the world is French. Population growth is occurring astonishingly fast in sub-Saharan Africa, and many countries in that region were once French colonies. Currently, French is spoken by about 220 million, or 3% of the world’s population. One estimate from the National Institute of Demographic Studies suggests that, by 2100, French will be spoken by 750 million people, or 8% of the world’s population. By the mid-twenty-first century, French may even rocket into first place as the most commonly spoken language in the world, surpassing Spanish, Arabic, English, and even Mandarin Chinese.

But the easiest way of all to solve this map would have been to look at Romania, sitting over in Eastern Europe by itself. With the exception of Moldova, the countries around it have all been shrunk by this cartogram. That’s because the Romanian language, like French and Spanish, is derived from Latin. The country’s name is derived from the word “romanus,” meaning “citizen of Rome.” It’s easy to spend all your time looking at the large Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries in Latin America and ignore Europe entirely. For many people, however, the key to solving this cartogram was to remember that Romanian is a Romance language.

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